The 9 Box Concept

Tony Ticknor and I devised the 9 Box Concept of Quality and Complexity at a time when we were both using the same words to describe the work that we did, and we had to find a way to make sense of that.

In 2021, I owned a small SEO and Web design agency, and Tony helped run a 30 person agency. We were both saying “website” and “Design” and while we were thinking of similar end results for our customers, we also both meant wildly different things, process, tools, customers, and most importantly, pricing. He was charging $20-40k just to have a conversation, we were charging $10k for our largest projects.

And somehow in both cases, our (very different) customers were getting the better/best versions of exactly what they were looking for – which didn’t seem possible.

Our agency could not do work for their agency – and their agency could not do work for us.

We realized that we were thinking about what we did as “linearly” different, and the only way for all of this to make sense, is if that wasn’t true.

Over a bunch of working sessions, we came up with the 9 box concept, and we’ve been utilizing it to create clarity across so many conversations and so many people, that we’re finally putting it here for reference.

What are the basic rules behind the concept?

 

 

  1. Complexity and Quality are not the same.
  2. Things do not increase/decrese “linearly”, they are step-changes. 
    1. What got you here won’t get you there. 
    2. What you use there often won’t work over here.
  3. Bigger is not better, it’s different – Bigger typically means it’s harder to keep things and people in alignment.
The 9 Box 1

Explaining the rules a bit

1. Complexity and Quality are not the same.

One of the most common conversations we have is around businesses of different sizes.

In the 9Box, we typically anchor to the idea shown here, 

  • T3: Corporate
  • T2: Small – Mid
  • T1: Solo-Micro

Notice that “Quality” does not go UP as the size of business gets larger, which is a common belief.

Complexity increases because you have more people to manage moving together – but that does not mean they’re doing that WELL.

Size of organization does not mean they’re producing a high quality product, either.

The 9 Box 2

2. Things don’t increase and decrease linearly, they are step changes.

Lots of things in life increase linearly, like counting, 1, 2, 3, 4. We can fit a lot of the human experience into that idea.

Like doing push ups or having a birthday – one more, one more.

Linear Progress up and to the right graphic

However, much and more of the human experience happens in huge step changes, like going from crawling to walking.

Most things that increase in complexity don’t increase like 1, 2, 3, they increase in powers, like 1, 10, 100.

Doing one “clapping push-up” is not twice as hard as doing one “normal push-up”, it’s at least 10 times as hard.

When doing a project, the effort it takes to keep 1 person “on track” and knowing what needs done over time is hard. Keeping 2 people on track and knowing what needs done over time is AT LEAST 10x as hard, probably 100x as hard.

Graph for 9 box explanation showing stair step graph up and to the right

2.1 What got you here won’t get you there

The tools and effort you need to do a single push up are not the same tools and effort you need to do a clapping push up. You need to engage entirely new groups of muscles, and use the familiar muscles in brand new ways – it’s almost a whole new experience.

You basically have to start learning from scratch, just being happy that you have some strength built up in some of the key areas.

It’s the same with communicating

Communication with yourself is fundamentally different than communicating with 2 people, or 10 people. You probably need completely new tools, and/or to use your old tools in entirely new ways. You basically have to start learning from scratch, just being happy that you have some strength built up in some of the key areas.

2.2 What you use there, probably won’t work here

When you move up in complexity, It’s not “better”, it’s just more complex.

You’re really restarting the “quality” conversation entirely – since moving up in complexity means most of what you were doing, won’t work anymore.

This is an incredibly common mistake in different sizes of organization.

Someone inside a corporate business will step outside of it, and attempt to bring all of their knowledge and tools to small businesses, thinking that their “large org” experience is “better”

Actually, what you used there probably won’t work here at all.

If you’re a gymnast who is used to engaging ALL your muscles to do your movements, and then you try to tell a person who is doing a basic push up to follow all the same rules… you’ll ruin the push up. The push up literally does not need or ask for all the things you’re trying to force onto it.

Similarly, the ways we abstract information to keep 1,000 distributed people moving forward together are unwieldy and a waste for a 3 person team who can meet in person at a coffee shop. What’s the value of that complex stuff when you can just talk to each other? Trying to utilize those complex tools actually makes things WORSE for less complex orgs.

It’s literally bringing a commercial wrench to a job for a kitchen sink. It might be worse than unwieldy, the tool itself might actually make the job impossible because it can’t become small enough.

Linear Progress up and to the right graphic