How to Build a Better IDP

The individual development plan has been collecting dust for decades. But with a few upgrades, it can help your talent soar.

By Beverly Kaye and Lindy Williams

Business has changed since the Eisenhower administration. The individual development plan (IDP) has not. In this age of reboots, it’s time to breathe new life into one of the oldest tools in the book.

The IDP emerged in the 1950s and became an HR staple. Often tucked into a slot just after the performance review discussion, the IDP usually came with a set of instructions outlining the focus and scope of the plan and tips for having a conversation about the skills the employee should work on in the coming year.

Forms were completed. Boxes were checked. All was done until the next year.

There were a few small shifts along the way. Some practitioners encouraged the separation of the performance discussion and the development conversation, allowing time to elapse between the two meetings in the hope that one wouldn’t diminish the value of the other.

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Eventually, a fill-in box emerged in some IDPs that called for a longer-term goal or career aspiration.

In some cases, calendars were adjusted to accommodate these tweaks, but that was it. The two pieces of the process and their associated meetings marched along together with the IDP sitting (un)comfortably in the shadow of the performance evaluation process for several decades.

The IDP sat quietly, promising to promote growth and fuel development-focused conversations. And it sat … and it sat … and it sat. Still, that’s some tremendous staying power. So there’s definitely something there.

It’s time to identify the there and untangle the IDP from the performance management process. It’s time to shake off the dust and let it walk on its own.

You’re Busy. Why Bother?

Why take the time to spend precious hours bringing the IDP out into the light? Let’s start with two related and very important factors: the talent you attract and keep, and the competition for your customers and clients.

We know that employees want to learn, grow, and be successful. Research has long shown that people who see a future inside the organization are more engaged, productive, and committed to their work and their teams. That’s not new.

What is new, though, is that more organizations are working to create employee experiences that deliver on the promise of development and growth. The talent you need to meet your objectives might just envision their future with a competitor if you won’t help them see it with you.

What makes the issue even more urgent is the need to remain visible in your industry. Effective development and meaningful growth plans open the door to the ideas and innovations that will be critical to building and maintaining a loyal customer and client base.

So aside from development being the right thing to do, it’s also essential to your organization’s very survival.

A New Meaning to IDP

What if IDP in your organization stood for “igniting development potential”? We think the process could do just that.

Consider the following ideas. Think about your current process and how each suggestion could position your IDP to promote growth, initiate development-focused conversations, and prepare individuals for the future.

Choose one. Choose several. Complete all of them. It’s your choice based on what your IDP needs.

Market It

There’s no time for lengthy communications about anything, including the IDP, so simplify the message. Answer the basics and spread the word far and wide.

What’s the IDP here? Clarify or reinforce the organization’s point of view about development. If the explanation takes more than a few sentences, rethink it, revisit it, and refine it. One example we’ve recently seen simply says, “We believe every employee—at every level—is learning every day. Our IDP is a chance to hear about what you’re learning.”

What’s it used for? State how the employee’s plan will be used, who will see it, what will be shared and with whom, and how the content will feed into other processes. When employees know the reach of the IDP, they’re better positioned to invest time and thought into creating the most meaningful plans.

Who has answers? A simple one-stop call here, text here, or email here can eliminate the need for lengthy FAQs, documents, or wordy websites.

Ready the Resources

Think carefully about who should be involved in your IDP process. Sure, the author of the IDP (the employee) is involved, but when? We’re asking you to back up a bit. Back up to before the writing of the plan. Back up to the design phase.

Technology provides an opportunity to crowdsource the design of both the process of the IDP and the plan itself. If an IDP is intended to inspire an employee to learn and grow, who would be better at designing it than the recipient of the learning and the growing? The employee.

We hear from employees that they want the IDP to be flexible, simple, representative of their needs, and most importantly, used. Here’s how we’d attack it:

First, ask all employees what they need and want from the IDP. Their answers will differ. Ownership and buy-in come from involvement, and development isn’t something you can do to someone. When employees participate in the design process and the conversations that go with it, it results in an experience that’s more than user-friendly. It’s user-useful.

Second, keep it simple. Don’t include more than a few questions to answer, because no one has time for lengthy instructions and narratives. Let employees choose what interests them most and what development areas are most meaningful for them and for their futures. And keep it flexible: If an employee wants to plan for three months or three years, encourage them. Remember, the plan belongs primarily to the employee.

Finally, make it actionable. A plan without action is a waste of time. A few simple, but focused action steps with completion dates will help. But taking those steps just a bit further can breathe life into the plan. Include a commitment to action to be shared with others—a mentor, coach, manager, or peer group—to increase the “stickiness” of the plan and potentially garner support for the effort.

Tap Talent

IDPs can take the talent search wider and deeper. Hidden talent can be discovered when the content from IDPs is shared broadly. We know this may be a detour from your normal practice, but the time is right to try something new.

Socialize the content. This offers hiring managers a wider lens for viewing existing talent. Communicating employees’ development needs, wants, and aspirations leverages technology features as well as the willingness of many individuals to share what they know, what they need, and what they want to know.

Add a learner seat to every project team. Consider housing content like “What I am learning this month (or year)” in an easily searchable location and set a goal for project managers to include at least one learner in each of their initiatives. Project selection templates could prompt leaders to pull in members from areas and expertise that reach beyond the usual suspects and, in the process, build inclusive teams.

Create internal internships to cross-train employees based on interests they identify in their IDPs. When you demonstrate a commitment to growing your own, you send two important messages: We heard you, and we support you.

Assign in-house recruiters to focus solely on finding talent wherever it sits inside the organization. Don’t forget to publicly applaud and recognize managers and leaders who partner with these talent miners to encourage sharing of resources and create networks of development.

Optimize Options

Most IDP conversations focus on development opportunities in the current role or the immediate next step. But people want to know about opportunities beyond that. Employees know things are changing—and we know they know. So let’s make the IDP flexible enough to accommodate changes as they occur.

Personalize patterns to widen the lens of possibilities. If your IDP allows employees to identify different next steps based on their needs, you’re personalizing the process and increasing the range of options. An IDP by its very label is intended to be personal. Ownership of the plan depends upon how well it meets what each employee needs.

Ask for experiences, not roles, in a rapidly changing workplace. Experiences will outlive job titles. Shifting markets and customer base modifications make job titles and even specific roles uncertain. IDPs expand the horizon of choices when they not only allow for, but encourage employees to identify the types of experiences they want versus a role or title.

Accept “I don’t know” as an answer. One of the worst possible questions to ask many employees is, “Where do you see yourself in the future?” And yet, we do it all the time in many IDPs. The response is usually what the employee thinks is the appropriate and expected answer, but the honest reply is most likely, “I don’t know.” Accepting that response and pointing employees to resources that can help them explore possibilities demonstrates support and encourages candor.

Stop typing and start talking. Add “Stop here and talk” buttons in the IDP process. Conversations between employees and managers are often focused on what needs to be done right now to meet a goal or deliver a product. Leveraging that immediacy to initiate conversations about development can raise the awareness of how important development really is to the individual and the organization.

Conversations don’t have to be lengthy. “What did you learn this week?” can reinforce a plan and refocus energy. Sprinkle short exchanges throughout the week, month, and year to build dialogue and keep development on track.

Reap the Rewards

When an IDP process is alive, well, and working, the three stakeholders win big.

Employees: Every engagement study and exit interview will tell you that people join organizations for opportunities to grow and leave if they don’t believe growth is possible. It’s also clear from employee surveys that development conversations don’t happen with the frequency employees want. And even when they do, they often disappoint.

Successful IDP conversations do more for employees than identify next-step action plans and the resources needed to get there. IDPs boost an employee’s self-awareness, which is a crucial competency for success; strengthen the employee-manager connection; and reinforce the message that the employee is valued. When employees leave the IDP conversation knowing how to grow in their current roles, they’re more alert to opportunities and ready to experience the future within the organization.

Managers: Employees and managers often hold performance appraisals and related conversations separately. The IDP process and associated conversations are the proactive and practical next step. The IDP is the incentive and catalyst for change, development, and growth, and frequent conversations keep that mindset alive.

Taking time to consider the future is a powerful and personal force in an overwhelmed working world. As communication improves and a development dialogue gains traction, the manager-employee relationship strengthens. Development-focused conversations also uncover information about what kinds of experiences employees want, which can be incredibly useful to the many projects that sit on a manager’s desk.

Organizations: When the information from IDP conversations is shared with leaders, internal recruiters, and development specialists, talent can be used more effectively. Studies have shown that promoting from within (versus hiring externally) often leads to more success, thanks to the internal employee’s connections and understanding of the culture. The IDP process can surface strong candidates who may otherwise be overlooked.

As organizations become more tech-equal, the differentiating force will be the talent they attract, develop, grow, and retain. Improved engagement results and reductions in unwanted turnover are sought-after indicators of healthy and growing organizations.

Employees who know they’re valued and feel they have growth possibilities are committed and ready to do what’s needed to meet objectives.

Employees who envision a future within the organization, plus managers who take talent development seriously, is the formula for the igniting development potential in 2019 … and beyond.

Beverly Kaye is the recipient of the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Talent Development. She is the coauthor of Love ’Em or Lose ’Em, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, and Up Is Not the Only Way.

Lindy Williams is a designer and consultant for Talent Dimensions. She’s the coauthor of Up Is Not the Only Way.