Managers classify their direct reports in various ways; there are several well-known approaches. Used respectfully, classification is a good thing for employees, managers, and the company. A thoughtful framework can help a manager identify imbalances within the team or company, guide people as they grow and develop their careers, make good hires, plan for succession, and face hard decisions about transitions.
The business world loves 2×2 matrices. You can use them to decide on market strategy, do a SWOT analysis, analyze market position, distinguish between competing tasks, or classify employees, just to name a few. The 2×2 matrix is a simple, powerful tool that lets you easily see the combinations of two independent variables or dimensions.
But what if the situation you want to analyze has more than two significant dimensions? Part of the power of the 2×2 is simplicity. Adding dimensions gets complicated, quickly. We need more than four catchy names for the combinations. We can’t draw a simple picture on a whiteboard. On the other hand, what significant business problem doesn’t have more than two dimensions in reality?
Employees in Two Dimensions
My colleague Jonah Bailey’s blog post on how to manage a team you inherit describes how two well-known leaders use 2×2 matrices to classify employees. That got me thinking of the differences between the two systems.
Culture + Performance
Bill Walsh, famous football coach, used a matrix with the dimensions of “culture fit” and “performance” to think about players and how to build a successful team. Players were classified like this:
I really like Walsh’s use of “culture fit” as one of the two precious dimensions in the complex, multi-dimensional space of classifying people. This a great match to companies (like Atomic Object) that use culture as a key part of their strategy. Judging by his success with the San Francisco 49ers, it was also effective for building successful NFL teams.
Performance + Growth Trajectory
Kim Scott, author of a wonderfully simple idea known as radical candor (itself described in a 2×2 matrix, of course), uses a 2×2 matrix for talent management. Her dimensions are “performance” and “growth trajectory.” Scott’s classification approach is more nuanced than just four buckets. It makes a compelling argument for the importance of growth trajectory in considering how to manage people.
Walsh and Scott both include performance in their matrices. But they differ in the second dimension — Walsh doesn’t have growth potential; Scott doesn’t have culture fit.
Did Bill Walsh not care about growth potential? Clearly not. He was famous for investing in rookie players who were good cultural fits but needed to grow their skills to improve their performance. I’m guessing one of his goals in drafting players was making savvy guesses about their growth potential.
Does Kim Scott not care about culture fit? From what I’ve read of her work, I doubt it. She seems like someone who very much understands and values culture. It’s just that she focused on a different dimension for this tool.
Seeing in 3-D
What if you combined performance, growth potential, and culture fit in a three-dimensional matrix for thinking about employees? If you stuck with a binary value for each of the three dimensions (2^3 = 8), you’d have eight possible classifications. You’d have to come up with twice as many crafty names (if you want to make your model famous), but you might see some things hidden by the simpler models.
You could think about your 3-D model like eight cubes stacked up like this:
I played with a 3-D model to see if using three dimensions justifies the additional complexity. Here’s a table (inspired by a digital logic truth table) that shows the eight classifications:
Let’s talk about each of these:
- Huge hiring fail – If you regularly have people here, you really need to stop to examine and improve your hiring process. This fail’s totally on you.
- Bad investment – These people could be invested in to bring them up to speed on performance, but why bother? Your best case here is to move them to a #4. Maybe they’ll become culture fits? Wishful thinking, mostly. Invest your time and money in people who you want to keep.
- Short-termer – These people are performing, but you think they’ve topped out, and they’re not good culture fits. Manage those people on to a better match. There’s no need for immediate action; just watch that you don’t get complacent.
- Tempting talent – This is the riskiest category. High performers who have high potential are really tough to part ways with. Worst case, you need to read Bob Sutton’s no asshole rule essay. Best case, you’ll have to watch carefully to see that high performance is being achieved in a fashion consistent with company values. If you keep these folks around indefinitely, other employees will probably start to think culture doesn’t, in fact, matter to you. That’s a bad tradeoff in the long-term.
- Hardest case – This classification is so named because to help these people move on from your company can be heart-breaking. They align so well with the culture. They love your company. They are so happy to be a part of it. Other employees probably like them, too. Everyone wants to see them succeed. But if they can’t perform well in their job and show no growth potential, you’re at risk of letting dead wood build up. That’s a slow-motion way to put your company and a lot of jobs at risk.
- High potential – These are your inexperienced, culture-matched, values-aligned, high-potential folks. This is Bill Walsh’s “Rookie” classification. Invest in, mentor, and nurture these people like crazy. They are your future leaders and key people.
- Solid performer – These people are the backbone of every company. They fit the company, they help maintain culture, they’re good at their job, and they’re great people to work with. They just don’t want to (or probably won’t) grow beyond their current job. We can’t all be superstars.
- Key person* – We all know individuals who are extraordinary at their jobs, are still growing into new roles, exemplify the culture, and play a leadership role, even if it’s de facto. Your growth and innovation likely depend on these folks.
*Part of Atomic’s culture is an orientation toward teams — focusing on team success or failure and rewarding based on company profitability instead of individual performance. For this reason, I don’t like to use terms like “rockstar” or “superstar.”
3-D vs Walsh
Is the introduction of a third dimension and thus the creation of eight classification buckets worth it? One way to answer that question is to compare against the simpler 2×2 matrix from Bill Walsh. The names in the subheadings below are the names of Walsh’s four buckets.
Walsh’s Superstars (good culture fit, high performance) are my “solid performer” and “key person,” the difference being whether they have plateaued or are still growing. That seems like an important consideration for succession planning.
His Rookies (good culture fit, not performant) are my “hardest case” and “high potential.” Distinguishing here can help you invest your people development time and effort wisely. Potential may be hard to judge, but if you are confident that the potential just isn’t there — that you’re asking someone to grow taller — there’s no sense investing in them or keeping them in a job where they’ll never succeed.
Walsh’s Free Agents (bad culture fit, high performance) are my “short-termer” and “tempting talent” people. Neither are good long-term fits, but the second points out the danger from falling for the temptation of allowing someone who is “so good and so promising” to stick around indefinitely.
Finally, Walsh’s Waiver (bad fit, poor performance) is my “huge hiring fail” and “bad investment.” Again, the second category helps you see past their growth potential and not overly invest in the wrong people. It’s just not worth it. In both cases, the action should be the same as Walsh’s.
I think the growth potential dimension adds valuable insights to Walsh’s scheme. But I’ve never tried to apply the 3-D model to a diverse group of employees. I’d love to learn from the experience of anyone who might be inspired to give this idea a try.
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Matt WarrenMarch 2, 2021
Great wisdom here!