Perhaps you’ve heard of the professional growth tool called the Individual Development Plan (or IDP for short). They often prove handy for many organizations seeking to develop employees’ skills (leadership & functional) in preparation for what’s next. In some cases, entire sectors (such as the U.S. government) require the completion of IDPs on an annual or semi-annual basis. Other organizations have a more ad hoc system involving the use of IDPs.
So what makes the IDP so special? In this post I’ll explain what an IDP is, why it’s so important, and then share some steps showing how to complete one. At the bottom of the post I’ll include a link to an IDP template you can use for yourself or your team.
What is an IDP?
An IDP is three things. First, it is simply a plan to develop or grow strategically in a professional setting (although you may certainly use one for personal growth as well). It is completed by the employee (sometimes in collaboration with a supervisor, career coach, or HR representative). Second, an IDP is not the same as a performance plan, although the two do complement each other. A performance plan highlights the objectives and results that must be achieved as a part of an employee’s inherent job responsibilities. An individual development plan highlights the growth an employee pre-plans during a period of time. Performance plans may be identical for some (or all) the members of a team whereas IDPs will probably be unique. Third, an IDP is a living plan. It changes over time as growth occurs.
Why is an IDP Important?
In his book The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, John Maxwell says that experience is a hard teacher because the test is given first and the lesson is given afterward. But unless you are intentional about evaluating the experience, there’s a good chance of missing out on the lesson! That’s what an IDP does. Think of performance as the “test” and development as the “lesson.” An IDP makes the lesson intentional by pre-planning for it. Without a plan for development, effectiveness is evaluated on a pass/fail basis of performance outcomes. An IDP should raise performance results over time as individual capacity increases. IDPs also allow employees and organizations to communicate and reach consensus on what constitutes a developmental win.
What should be included in an IDP?
Most organizations using IDPs customize them to some extent, but below are some elements you can usually expect to see on any IDP:
Career Goal. A career goal is the next destination you’d like to attain in your career. It’s the next thing you are working toward. It could be the next promotion, an entirely new position, or increased capability in the same position. Or it could be additional responsibility outside of your role to supplement the work you already do. Having a career goal informs the rest of the IDP elements. I suggest considering both short-term (1-2 years) and medium-term (2-5 years) career goals.
Objectives. A development objective is simply an area you identify for growth which will move you closer to your career goal. It could focus on a strength or skill in which you are already capable and wish to excel. Or it may focus on a weakness (or “opportunity for development”) that threatens your competence or is seen as a liability. It could be hard or soft, technical or non-technical. Or it could be acquiring knowledge you don’t currently have but will need to succeed in the future.
Activities. Once you’ve identified your career goal and objectives, you’re ready to identify and commit to the developmental activities that will meet your objectives. The options are limited only by your creativity, resourcefulness, and in some cases, organizational resources. Your activities may be within your role, outside your role, or completely extracurricular. Some examples from all three could include leading a new project, supporting a project on another team (or a joint team), doing a rotational assignment, attending a seminar, joining a professional association or networking group, completing a new certification, becoming a board member for a non-profit in your industry, or reading a book. The key point to remember with development activities is to make them measurable. In other words, specify how you will know when you have completed them.
Timelines. Timelines need to be attached to each developmental activity. If one of your activities is to work on a special project, that project (or your involvement with it) should have an end date. This may seem like the simplest element of the IDP, but it’s one of the most crucial. Besides having a timeline for each activity, each IDP should have its own time period (bi-annual, or annual are most common).
Support needed. This section allows you to identify the support you need in terms of budget, time, approval, or collaboration. There is a big difference between doing a six month rotational assignment and reading a book in terms of all the above. Will your development activities be done on company time or personal time? Will they qualify for learning budget or come out of pocket? If any organizational resources are invested, it’s likely someone will have to approve the activity. While it may not be mandatory, some collaborative support may be welcome as well, such as input from a supervisor, a coach, or a subject matter expert.
Regardless of whether your organization requires the use of IDPs or not, it’s hard to ignore their value as a growth tool. Many of us have an idea where we’d like our career to go but lack a written plan preparing for it ahead of time. Vince Lombardi gave some great advice to this point by pointing out that the will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.
If you’d like to see a sample template of an IDP, you may download one here.
In my next post, I’ll explain how to take development planning to the next level by building a Development Library for your organization.
Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader. Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or follow him on Twitter.