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IDPs to Leverage Strengths
By Don Jacobson
Individual Development Plans (IDPs) have long been used in government as
a tool to help employees develop their skills, further their office's
mission, and achieve their career goals. Some agencies require all
employees to prepare IDPs, while others rarely use them at all. All
managers, however, have the option of using IDPs--even in organizations where IDPs
are not common.
IDPs are an excellent tool that supervisors can use to develop and
motivate their staff. By encouraging a focused approach to each
individual's training/developmental needs, managers can help their
employees enhance their job skills and become more effective and
productive. Managers who promote the use of IDPs also send a clear
message to their charges that they view each person's professional
development as a priority. If done properly (i.e. with sincerity and
follow-through) this tends to be a good motivator for most employees.
Should IDPs Target Strengths or Weaknesses?
Some management experts have become critical of IDPs in recent years.
For example, in their book First, Break all the Rules
, Marcus Buckingham
and Curt Coffman argue that IDPs are often ineffective because they
typically focus too much on addressing employee weaknesses, with the
misguided expectation that every employee can master all competencies
and become perfectly well-rounded. If an employee has no talent in a
given area, they argue, a training course is not going to rewire his
brain to make that non-talent into a new strength.
However, far from discouraging anyone from preparing an IDP, such
observations should simply help employees prepare more effective ones.
The idea that training can help employees become more skilled is
axiomatic. And it makes a great deal of sense to create targeted
training plans that take into account the needs of each employee and
their agency. The key is to identify the kinds of training and
developmental opportunities that will boost each employee's performance
The ideal IDP should primarily focus on two things: 1) leveraging each
employee's strengths/talents, and 2) providing new skills and knowledge
that will help the employee perform better in his job. Remedial help for
addressing weaknesses should be provided only in the event that the
employee has a fatal flaw that will preclude him/her from being
How to Prepare an Individual Development Plan
There is a wealth of literature on how to prepare Individual Development
Plans. Some organizations develop such detailed instructions that the
guidance itself can actually have the unintended effect of deterring
people from preparing IDPs at all. Busy managers typically lack the time
to wade through a mountain of material on the subject. Consequently, we
will not go into great detail here, but will include some useful
at the bottom of this page for those readers who would like more
Each employee is responsible for developing the substance of his own IDP
and then agreeing on its contents with his supervisor. There is no
mandatory format or official form. Some agencies do have a recommended
form, but a memo works just as well. The key is to assess the employee's
training and developmental needs and commit them to paper.
The process of making an effective IDP first involves each employee
asking himself the following questions:
- What direction is my organization going and what will the
organization need from its employees in the future?
- What are my goals over the next five years? (This question is
crucial to providing a motivational focus for everything the employee
- What are my greatest strengths and how can I build on them more
effectively? (A 360-degree evaluation or a strengths test can be
helpful in this regard.)
- Do I have any serious weaknesses that make it difficult to do my
job or will prevent me from reaching my goals?
After answering these questions, the employee should try to
identify developmental opportunities that will help him build on his
strengths in such a way that he can better serve the needs of the
organization and reach his goals. Developmental opportunities can take
many forms, and a mix of training and experiential learning should be
included on the IDP. Besides formal training in a classroom setting
(the most common--and costly--option), other excellent developmental
opportunities include shadowing of senior executives, mentoring,
distance learning through the internet or intranet, assignment to a
project team, cross-training, exposure to supervisory
responsibilities, involvement in outreach efforts, and temporary
assignments in other offices or posts.
Once the employee has drafted his IDP, he should meet with his
supervisor to discuss it. The supervisor should offer additional
guidance on how to best address questions 1, 3 and 4 above, as
appropriate. The supervisor should also provide guidance on the range
of training resources that are available, as she may be aware of
resources unfamiliar to the employee. The employee's final IDP should
be realistic given the office's resources and staffing.
After the employee and supervisor have agreed on the contents of the
IDP, they should both sign it. It then becomes a non-binding contract,
by which the employee makes a commitment to follow through on the IDP
and the supervisor acknowledges the need to make time for him to do
so. The IDP should be reviewed and revised periodically to reflect the
changing needs of the employee and/or office.
A note of caution: While the IDP is not binding, managers should make every effort to
ensure that each employee is given time for the training and
developmental opportunities listed on his IDP. Chronic failure to make
time for previously agreed upon learning opportunities will breed
cynicism and mistrust, completely undermining the IDP's motivational
Finally, after the employee has attended a training
course, it is important to follow up and ensure that he has an
opportunity to put the training to good use quickly before the new
knowledge and/or skills become a distant memory. This may be a
challenge given that an employee who has been out of the office for a
week will usually return to find a full in-box. Nevertheless, it is
necessary to ensure that the training has the intended benefits for
both the employee and the organization.
Additional Information about Individual
web-based tutorial that walks users through the process of creating an
IDP.Nice overview of the the IDP process,
includes detailed step-by-step guidance.
Very readable guide developed by the Department of Defense.
Prepared by the U.S. Department of Commerce, includes some
helpful worksheets to assist employees in developing their IDP.
Good article by Daniel R. Tobin (All
Learning is Self-Directed Learning) about learning contracts.
Comprehensive guide by OPM on how to most effectively target training
to address organizational needs and subsequently assess whether the
training has had the desired benefits for the organization.