Time to ditch the nine-box grid?

It’s an assessment tool dreamed up by McKinsey in the 1960s. Disarmingly simple, its straightforward lexicon of ‘high’, ‘low’ and ‘moderate’ hasn’t changed in over fifty years. We’re talking of course of the nine box grid. Should we still be using it today?

“It’s merely formulaic and altogether unhelpful” stated one source, explaining that its measures are not objective and can more often create division or disagreement than any shared consensus on how to build a person’s career. Many commented that it can viewed as a divisive tool using measures which are not objective.

An HR Director from a FTSE 100 company described the nine box grid as “outdated”. She pointed out it even uses the same language as when it was first established: “Do we really need to keep on talking about ‘critical keepers’ and ‘rising stars’? Surely someone needs to develop something more current.”

Other sources worried about the risk of conscious or unconscious bias, suggesting the system was not robust enough to override the personal relationship between individual and assessor. In this context, a Director of Talent at a global FMCG business opined that “talent is relative and highly situational” so labelling someone as a ‘future star’ or a ‘solid performer’ raises almost as many questions as answers. There’s also little room for assessors to change their minds without either losing credibility or diminishing an employee’s motivation.

Lastly, the nine box grid only tends to focus on internal candidates. “Most of our senior hires are external” said the Head of Executive Resourcing at a leading bank, “so if your grid only contains the names of people who are already on the payroll, you’ve got a very partial view of the future leader landscape”.

So, is it time to get rid of the grid?

Well, perhaps not. Other sources defended the tool, precisely because of its simplicity. The alternative of course usually involves some sort of tech-based solution, but as the former Head of HR at a well-known retail business told us, “a lot of the technology out there is good at looking pretty, but it doesn’t really deliver on what we need”. There is a real danger of innovation for its own sake, rather than for the genuine betterment of a process.

With that in mind, the nine box grid probably still has a role to play in succession planning and career development. Its limitations, though, should be more widely acknowledged and its application combined with (not replaced by!) more modern, tech-based methodologies.

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