“Get Rid of the 9-grid”
Tom, what do you think of the 9-grid?
The 9-grid is typically one of the HR tools designed in the last century. I think it was designed by McKinsey for GE, probably together with the famous principle: always get rid of your bottom 10% low performers. I have used the 9-grid a lot, and I have spent hours in sessions with senior management (“calibration meetings”), discussing the exact place of the potentials in the grid. In hindsight, I think this was generally a waste of time. In my view, we should get rid of the 9-grid.
There are several reasons. I will try to highlight a few.
1. The 9-grid is connected to a top-down approach
In many organisations, talent management is more talking about people than talking with people. The 9-grid is generally used in kind of secret sessions. For HR, these sessions are often the highlight of the year, as this is a process they are driving! Senior management has promised the Supervisory Board that they would spend more time on talent management, and they prove this by spending a lot of time on the talent identification discussion. It looks like a solid process, but most of it is window dressing. The subjects who are plotted on the grid, are not aware what is discussed about them. If you ask them about their ambitions and aspirations, you can get surprising results. The high potential who is featuring in box 3:3 (high performance and high potential) is on the verge of accepting a job at a competitor. One of the few women on box 3:3 has stated that she will never work for the current CEO, as she has no confidence in him at all.
2. The judgment is very personal and not fact based
Most 9-grids are filled based on the personal opinion of a few powerful senior managers. Performance ratings are often not based on real performance, but on the subjective judgement of bosses. Predicting someone’s potential is very difficult, if not impossible. The result: in the upper right corner, box 3:3, you can find the friends of the boss.
3. The 9-grid is part of a very slow talent identification process
The talent management process tends to be very slow. If your main way to identify talent is talking to the senior managers in the organisation, you will have to spend a lot of time on collecting and calibrating the data. In most organisations this still is an annual process, culminating in presenting the outcomes to the Board. Fortunately, talent identification can be supported by clever technology today, which makes you less dependent on the subjective and biased views of managers. Most 9-grids are only used to keep management and supervisory boards happy, not to take concrete action with the talent on the list. One the 9-grid is ready, the information is already outdated.
4. Only internal candidates are considered
Most 9-grids only contain the names of people who are already on the payroll. Outside candidates, and alumni are hardly ever considered, while they are an important pool of candidates. If fact, when you look at the appointments of new people in senior positions, they often come from outside, and they did not appear on the 9-grid.
So, what would you use in your organisation?
I would stop with the traditional talent management process, including the use of the 9-grid. I would make the recruitment and selection processes more transparent. In an open process, all people with the ambition and aspiration to grow to more senior positions, can apply, and in this way, you get access to a more diverse talent pool (especially if you also use technology to look for suitable candidates). In addition, I would put my money on talent analytics. What are the characteristics that differentiate the top performers for the average performers, and how can we find candidates (internal and external) with the required characteristics who fit in the culture of our organisation. Testing the candidates with solid personalty and capability tests would also be part of my approach.