The future of Talent


The 9-box grid is dead…long live the 9-box grid?

The world of talent is on the move. At IG, we’ve been getting feedback that traditional ways of handling talent are no longer effective. We got together with some leading industry professionals to spark a discussion about the future of talent:

-       Alex Marples, Director of Consulting at IG

-       Nathan Adams, HR Director at Aviva

-       Ben Phillips, Group Head of Talent at BP

-       James Prior, Global Head of Leadership Development at Novartis Oncology.

Here’s what they said.

Alex:     I’ve had my ear to the ground for a little while now, and I’m hearing a grumbling that the 9-box grid – the most common tool for handling talent – is starting to lose its reputation as the poster-boy of talent assessment and development.


James: I think it’s definitely getting tired. There’s a danger of oversimplifying this debate – after all, there’s no silver bullet for what is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted issue. But that’s the point really: the 9-box grid is a blunt tool for a very nuanced field. It – and other models like it – were developed in the 80s by gifted PhD students, tested on undergraduates, and retested on leavers of red brick universities.

If we’re looking for a diverse workforce, and the talent necessary to thrive in a newly agile world that’s changing fast, we need to find better ways to measure talent and potential. We need to select for resilience and learning ability as well as the more conventional qualities.

I think the solution lies in a data-analytic approach to identifying talent. We work from a definition of talent that feeds organisational strategy, and create a programme that measures for these traits in candidates. We introduce objectivity and eliminate biases that get in the way of the best talent reaching the top of the organisation.


Alex:     I agree completely that we need to create a model of potential that’s grounded firmly in identifying what the organisation needs to get where it wants to go, and work backwards from that point. Digital approaches to measuring talent definitely have a lot to offer, introducing some objectivity and the basis for powerful insight.

But I also think that we need to be careful not to lose the richness of the human element. Using talent models with a heavy weighting on algorithm-led, analytics-based techniques is at risk of undermining line manager judgement and devaluing the capability of the individual in role. It could also impact on performance: if you’ve had no say in who gets hired as your direct report, would you really feel it was fair to be held accountable for their performance?

The culture becomes about “computer says no”, not a living debate that empowers individuals and endows the system with capability and sound in-the-moment judgement.


James: I agree that it’s important to keep a culture of accountability, but I think we’re a long way from losing that to machine learning. I also think that if we do it right then this approach could massively reduce bias and encourage diversity, not limit it. The tech might not be there yet, and if it isn’t we should be working on that. If we keep the transparency and communication in place, we can have the best of both worlds.


Ben:      That lack of communication is part of the problem with the 9-box grid, I think. People can get wrapped up in moving names around boxes and fail to engage properly with the individual – what they have the potential to do and be – and how this relates to the organisation – what we can achieve as a result. If this ties into what the organisation has identified as key priorities – as Alex and James said – this should really engage people in how they can make a real difference and make the most of their careers. If not, we risk leaving talent engagement, management and succession to chance.

I see a lot of people get very passionate about talking about candidates, but fail to actually talk to them. They could spend hours discussing an individual without even letting them know that they’re being considered. This is a great way to waste time, resource and effort.

Instead, why don’t we make the whole process a lot more transparent and actually engage in an adult dialogue with our staff – for example, we could actually ask them if they’re interested in a promotion before putting them forward! Not everybody wants to be promoted all the time. There’s a tendency to shy away from conversations that we fear might be difficult. But these are the conversations that we really need to be having – and if we ask questions and listen to our people, we might find they’re less scary than we feared.

To James’ point, I think how we assess potential is much more important than the type of tool we put these results into. The JDI (Judgement-Drive-Influence) and learning agility models are good, but I agree we should also be looking at what capacities will enable leaders to navigate their organisations though the 21st century and beyond.


Nathan: I also think we need to redesign the process with the end in mind.

What are the key capabilities needed for your (the organisation’s) strategic ambitions?

What talent do you need for this? What does potential look like for this pool of talent?

Then we can put several initiatives in place – one to nurture existing talent; one to create learning opportunities for existing potential; and one that focuses on looking for new talent outside the organisation.

The temptation with this is to create a very tied-in succession plan that minimises risk and satisfies the regulatory perspective – and of course this is always going to be a big player in any large organisation. But this can end up with the whole process becoming slightly stale and meaningless – with none of the proper “adult dialogue” that Ben mentioned, and without the diversity and agility that James talked about.

I think we can introduce these things if we start looking at a pool of people, rather than one or two, at each stage of the succession pipeline. At each level, we need to be defining the size, scope, and complexity of the role, and having frequent, consistent conversations about individuals’ talent and potential to fulfil those dimensions with the timeframe in mind.

So I see the 9-box grid as a way to capture where an individual is at a given point. It can be a small piece in a much bigger puzzle, but needs to stop being used as a be-all-and-end-all that sets decisions in stone years in advance and shuts down learning and change. We need to move the focus from process to action.


James: I also think we need to be thinking about talent as less of a pipeline and more of a funnel. To absorb all of the changing contexts, circumstances, and individual trajectories that are beginning to characterise today’s business world, we need to start with a broad base of potential that narrows as it hits the upper levels.

To achieve a joined-up approach that feeds the organisational strategy, we need to be creating a demand-side model, not a supply-side one like the 9-box grid. The starting point should be where we’re trying to get to.

I also think that there’s a lot of talk about creating an end-to-end value proposition aligned with the strategy using the traditional tools like the 9-box grid, but it never really materialises. People get caught up in the day-to-day; they don’t want to upset the apple cart. Organisations are consensus-led so that even if people agree that the current process isn’t working, they won’t risk changing it.


Alex:    That’s why I advocate transferring capability into organisations. We need to create a culture where there’s trust in the individual to serve the organisational agenda, investing in our people so they can use self-insight to make sound decisions.


Nathan: Absolutely. I think we should also be encouraging people to diversify in their experience, broaden their career horizons. We give them the mobility within the organisation to build their networks, and get exposure to many different functions and areas. We introduce mentoring and trustee roles, building inter-organisational links. This all ties in with “portfolio careers” that we’re seeing nowadays, which is in turn a result of increased communication and mobility. What we end up with is a diverse group of candidates who are being challenged and developed so they’re motivated to stick with us; they’re an asset to the company; we improve our employer brand; these successful and happy individuals role model behaviour to the lower levels, etc. – it’s a virtuous circle.


Ben:     I fully agree. What is Talent Management for, if not to identify our talented people and then to give them the opportunities and support to fulfil their potential? There’s plenty of research now to tell us that – maybe counter-intuitively to some – we’re more likely to keep our best people if we help them become more externally attractive and employable. The reality is that this isn’t new; it’s just that organisations have often been opaque about their talent processes in the fear of losing talent to competitors once somebody is given a HiPo label. But think about it: good people will typically know they’re good, and if they’re not feeling recognised internally, they’re more likely to leave. Also, other companies aren’t waiting patiently to hear from us who our talent is – they’ve already found it! Organisations need to be at least as good at finding and engaging internal talent as external talent, and sadly that’s not always the case. 

As well as embracing the portfolio career and independence, we may soon see a time where the organisation doesn’t limit the boundaries of a person’s career. I believe the future may well see us taking part in projects and activities across a number of organisations (it’s already happening with the gig economy), and we will need new and more flexible ways of attracting, assessing and supporting talent and careers. The talent landscape is changing and the balance of power is shifting from organisations to employees, and organisations need to recognise and cater for that.

I think one of the problems with talent is that it’s fairly vague and abstract – and that can be a challenge for managers and organisations – especially for firms that are more comfortable dealing with concrete facts and figures. A 9-box grid at least gives them something clear to work with, but they’re missing the point if they spend all their time focusing on boxes. Equally, I see a lot of people conflating potential, performance and readiness – probably exactly because the latter two are more obvious and easy to assess. If we do this, we’ll rule out anyone who doesn’t already have the experience, and hamper both the individual and the organisation in the long term.

To assess potential well, you probably have to hold at least three conceptual models in your head at one time, and quite possibly more. Might there be a simpler way to get to the heart of the matter? I think what Alex, Nathan and James have mentioned is a good start: what capabilities does your organisation need to thrive and progress, and which of your people are best placed to offer that – now and in the future? I don’t believe there’s a single good-for-all solution, but following this, and then ensuring meaningful, transparent follow-up with employees, I’d say is a very good start.


Alex:    There’s definitely plenty of food for thought here.

I think we all agree that the landscape of talent is shifting, and that how we handle talent will need to change to ensure that we’re providing organisations with the people they need to thrive in a business climate where disruption is the new status quo.

Is the 9-box grid dead? Quite possibly. Or maybe it’s just become the whipping-boy for all the things that need to change in how we handle performance management, talent, potential, and succession planning in organisations. It is, at the end of the day, only a tool.


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