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A Starter's Guide to the 9-Box Model

Learning and Development | 8 Min Read

A Starter’s Guide to the 9-Box Model


The 9-box model is widely used in different segments of workforce planning and management. This starter-friendly guide will help you understand the nine-box model’s nuances, benefits and common pitfalls. The guide will provide you with a well-rounded understanding of how it can be the right tool for your organization and play a significant role in developing your employees for future success and roles.


What Is the 9-Box Model?

The 9-box model, which is sometimes referred to as the performance vs. potential matrix, is a talent management tool to map an organization’s employees onto a 3×3 matrix consisting of performance on the x-axis and potential on the y-axis, and to chart out a developmental path for them. 

The 9-box model is a simple yet effective tool for HRs and managers to determine their employees’ current position on the performance vs. potential matrix and on whom to focus their developmental efforts. A diagnostic tool for employee development, the nine-box model makes great contributions to high-potential identification, leadership development and succession planning processes.


performance vs potential matrix, 9-box model

Mercer | Mettl’s 9-box Model


Performance vs. Potential Matrix: The Concept

The concepts of performance and potential, their interdependence or the lack of it, have often been debated intently in the HR world. The performance vs. potential matrix or the nine-box model simplifies this conundrum, enabling recognizing the symbiosis between the two and how this relationship can benefit employees and organizations. 

In the 9 boxes categorized along the x and the y-axis in the performance vs. potential matrix, the top-right box is the most valuable position and indicates both high performance and high-potential. Conversely, the bottommost square indicates both low performance and low potential. While ‘performance’ is the level of success employees achieve in their current roles, ‘potential’ is employees’ caliber to assume more complex roles in the future.

One first needs to accurately plot employees on the performance vs. potential grid to use it well. Both potential and performance are individual metrics and need to be determined separately. Often, organizations find it difficult to measure performance and potential. The best way to gauge an employee’s performance level is by conducting 360-degree feedback. The best way to identify potential is through an assessment and development center.

What is the difference between performance and potential? This and many more questions have been answered in our blog, High-Potential Identification: The Science & Synergy. We encourage you to read it for a detailed understanding of the concept.

What Is the Purpose of a 9 Box?

The purpose of a 9-box model is to gain a holistic understanding of how your workforce is placed in terms of current performance and future potential. It helps organizations create talent pools that can be approached with the right development interventions. The purpose of a 9-box is also to aid organizations in planning better for their prospects. The 9-box model plays a vital role in identifying and developing high-potential employees, succession planning and leadership development.

Employee Development

Every box in the 9-box talent model has an aspirational career goal attached to it. If an employee is a performer, his/her next jump should be to that of the high performer box. If an employee is a current star, the organization needs to find a way to develop his/her potential while benefiting from his/her performance. Thus, enabling the individual to contribute more consistently and substantially. The 9-box model’s goal is to develop employees from every quadrant and help them progress to their next career objectives.

Identifying and developing high-potential employees

Your current employees are your biggest asset. You must find their true potential and develop them to benefit your organization. This is a win-win for both the organization and the employee. Organizations can measure employee potential through a series of assessments and simulations in an assessment and development center. After which, the results can be plotted on the 9-box performance potential matrix. Each box can have a corresponding development plan that can prepare high-potential employees for future roles.

The 9-box model for succession planning & leadership development

“Succession planning is a systematic process of building a strong leadership pipeline for the organization to maintain momentum when faced with the loss of talent owing to attrition or other factors.” – Succession Planning: How To Identify Your Next In Line With A HiPo Toolkit.

Employees with a consistently notable track record of performance and ratings of high-potentials, i.e., consistent stars on the nine-box model, can be groomed for C-level positions and future vertical heads. This helps employees get vested in the organization’s future, ensuring long-standing associations and lowered attrition rates. 

A 9-box succession planning model or a 9-box leadership model can only be successful when an organization has identified the key competencies required to take up a senior leadership role. Once the competencies are clearly defined, every competency can be accorded to a list of developmental activities and broader learning paths to ultimately build expertise.

Organizational Improvement

If an organization finds more than a sizable number of employees in the bottom left square of the 9-box grid model, it indicates that the organization needs to reconsider its screening methods and re-evaluate its overall recruitment and interview processes.

We used the 9-box primarily for succession planning and determining what development leaders needed to get to the next level. I believe in looking forward, not backward. Potential, therefore, is of much greater importance. We do have to base our decisions on past performances, but like they say in investments, the past performance is no indicator for future performance. With potential, you are looking to develop people for specific roles, because that's how you achieve your strategy. And the most strategic roles in your organization is where you put your greatest emphasis because these are the people who can help you get there and are most critical to your plans. Those roles, maybe ones that don't even exist today, but they are what you need to compete in the future. The next steps following the 9-box ranking are creating development plans with successors and high potentials. And looking at what are the critical roles in the future. You develop to meet future needs, not to meet just current needs. And those future needs keep evolving as the environment and strategy evolves.

Howard Prager
President, Advance Learning Group


The Pros & Pitfalls of The 9-Box Grid Model

The real value of the 9-box model is its ability to inform organizations about how to better plan for their future and who can play an exceptional role in it. It’s a great platform to get a snapshot of the entire workforce to make better decisions for the organization’s future. Organizations can get better equipped to help employees in their respective career paths, assuring employee loyalty. The nine-box model can also facilitate a certain level of transparency and dialogue among different stakeholders.

Here are some benefits of using the nine-box grid model:

  • Provides meaningful inputs for employee development plans
  • Contributes to an organization’s leadership development and succession planning
  • Helps organizations invest in the right people through the right means
  • Can result in higher retention rates and employee satisfaction by calibrating expectations and placing employees on a developmental path
  • Allows a relative comparison between talent and provides a talent gradient for better organizational planning
  • It is simple and cost-effective
  • Aligns employees with broader organizational goals, offering a sense of collective ownership
  • More accurate because of the involvement of multiple stakeholders

The nine-box model is fairly simple to emulate for your organization. However, there are a few common pitfalls one must consider:

  • Unclear definition and competencies of a high-potential can compromise the effectiveness of the 9-box talent management model. Organizations must have a clear distinction between a high-potential vs. a high performer.
  • Not understanding the tool’s implementation and using it for individual evaluation can defeat its goal of providing the right development diagnosis.
  • The 9-box model is not a tool to be used singularly. It needs to be used in conjunction with a holistic performance review system and an objective battery of assessments, indicating employee potential, to deliver the desired results. 
  • The aim of the 9-box talent management model is to provide a clear developmental path for employees. Don’t get stuck on the labels of the nine-box model; this can undermine the development process and create a negative environment for employees who are not in advantageous positions.
  • The nine-box grid model is not an end. In fact, it is the beginning of a comprehensive learning and development program in your organization.
  • Before plotting employees on the 9-box talent model, organizations need to know the next action and development steps and get right to them. 
  • Ensure the entire organization’s managers and HRs are on the same page about evaluating, identifying and plotting employees on the performance vs. potential matrix. Any inconsistency can significantly affect the morale of the organization’s employees, even lead to employee attrition.


How Do You Use a 9-Box Model?

Step 1: Define the building blocks of the 9-box model – the what, why & how

While performance has been an old metric in determining organizational success, recent studies have indicated the
importance of identifying potential when planning for the organization’s future. 

An organization can have its definition of performance and potential and its means of evaluating both. But you must ensure that the entire organization is following the same blueprint. Once you’ve agreed on the definitions, find the best tools to measure each metric.

When gauging potential, list out the competencies critical to the future success of your organization or industry and design your assessments based on them. A battery of assessments and simulations clubbed with 360-degree feedback can generate great insights on performance and potential. Other assessments can be used for evaluating critical competencies, such as cognitive abilities, logical reasoning, interpersonal communication, etc.

It is also important to set out clear objectives and outcomes that an organization desires from this exercise. It could just be the first step toward employee development or the first step toward building a leadership pipeline, but they should align with the organizational vision.


Step 2: Customize it to your organization’s requisites

For many organizations, ‘potential’ is a vague term. While the standard practice is to have potential on the y-axis, the 
9-box model is simple and flexible enough to be customized to your organizational requirements. Some organizations characterize potential by learning agility or change management. You can personalize it to suit your organization.

The 9 box performance model’s beauty is in its versatility of incorporating a metric that your organization holds in high regard. 


Step 3: Plot the result of the assessment and the identification process

Once you have all the information, you can begin to plot your talent on the 9-box model.

Some organizations assign a numerical value and get a total score of each employee, which corresponds to a box on the 9-box rating model. This method can differ from organization to organization or even from department to department.


Step 4: Start the development journey

After you’ve plotted each employee on the 9-box model, you will have a clear picture of where every employee needs help. You must then design a clear development plan for each employee based on their position on the nine-box grid model.

For example, if someone has already achieved a high level of performance in his/her current role, you can help him/her build leadership abilities and inculcate strategic thinking to develop that individual for a managerial role. For someone who is on the brink of better performance, provide that individual with peer mentoring opportunities to improve his/her current performance. For employees in the top right box, give them the opportunity to rotate jobs and develop a more holistic understanding of the organization to eventually take up senior leadership roles.

What I like about the performance and the potential matrix is that you can easily adjust it to suit your organization’s goal. However, it’s important to note that this feature of the model can be tricky. Since every employee’s role is different and performance and potential are subjective, it’s necessary to create a different model with different standards for every role. After you’ve set your performance and potential indicators, the first step of action for any organization would have to be setting their goals along with the estimated time they want to achieve them. Managers and entrepreneurs should be careful in setting their expectations in order to make the most use of the 9-box model.

Simon Elkjær
Chief Marketing Officer, avXperten



The 9-box mode is a highly effective talent management tool that imparts structure to your developmental and succession planning. The 9-box rating model should be used to diagnose developmental needs rather than equating them with labels. If used correctly, it can greatly benefit both the employee and the organization.



What is 9-box performance and potential matrix?

9-box performance and potential matrix is a human resource management tool that maps employees onto a 3×3 matrix with performance on the x-axis and potential on the y-axis. The 9-box performance and potential matrix helps organizations direct their development endeavors to groom the right people for the right roles.


What is the difference between performance and potential?


difference between performance and potential


How does the 9-box grid work?

9-box grid categorizes an organization’s workforce into nine talent pools. Each talent pool is then accorded with a developmental plan that helps them achieve their next career target. Some employees are given skill training to do better at their current roles, while others can be developed for managerial positions. The 9-box grid model works to make organizations better prepared to take important talent decisions regarding who to promote, who to groom, who to focus developmental efforts on, etc. The 9-box grid model can be an essential tool in succession planning and leadership development.

Originally published January 4 2021, Updated June 11 2024

Written by

Bhuvi is a content marketer at Mercer | Mettl. She's helped various brands find their voice through insightful thought pieces and engaging content. When not scandalizing people with her stories, you’ll find her challenging gender norms, dancing to her own tune, and crusading through life, laughing.

About This Topic

High-potential identification, also known as 'Hipo,' are employee development initiatives undertaken to identify the most valuable employees and develop them. It helps organizations identify leadership potential, build critical teams and retain top talent.

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