The Dirty Little Secret of the IDP – and How to Address it

secret of IDP Individual Development Plan

The Dirty Little Secret of the IDP – and…

If you’ve ever worked in a mid-size or large organization, you’ve probably had at least one individual development plan (IDP). If you work in HR, you may have dealt with many IDPs – those of your company’s employees. In either case, there is a dirty little secret about the IDP that you are likely familiar with.

The “secret” is that the IDP typically gets forgotten or ignored. Deadlines come and go with minimal acknowledgement of the deliverables that have been missed until it’s time to create a new IDP or perhaps the performance review. In truth, this is no secret. But it’s something we don’t often acknowledge. I suppose it’s understandable when you think about all the work that’s gone into putting the whole thing together.

I’ve only just realized what a secret this is in writing this post. Initially the title for it was going to be something straightforward like, “How to Stay on Schedule with your IDP.” I didn’t start thinking about this issue as a dirty little secret until I searched for some data, research or at least an article to support the notion of the forgotten or ignored IDP. Do you know what happened? That’s right, I barely found anything disclosing this shameful practice. I was impressed to find an entire masters thesis examining problems with the sustainability of IDPs in the US Coast Guard. It had a few examples of interviewees citing their forgotten IDPs, but they were secondary to the broader study of the entire IDP process from an organizational perspective. (Disclaimer: I did not read the entire study, but it’s now on my future reading list – it is long! But I did skim it for this topic.)

Despite the lack of readily available evidence, let’s be honest and admit that of all the things that get forgotten or ignored in the workplace, the IDP is at the top of the list for many employees, at all levels. The reasons vary greatly, ranging from lack of commitment to lack of technology. You could almost write a masters thesis on all the reasons! In the meantime, here are five individual strategies you can implement to keep your IDP on track, no matter how much support you receive from your organization.

1. Be specific with IDP goals and activities.

It’s not enough to simply document in your plan that you want to “be a better communicator” or “demonstrate leadership more often.” These are good starting points, but must be specified to the degree that there is no guesswork required to determine what the statement means. Maybe “be a better communicator” means I want to deliver engaging presentations. Or maybe it means I want to appear more confident when speaking to others. Maybe I need to speak up more in meetings when I am confused. If you’re not sure if your statement is specific enough, share it with a few trusted advisers and ask them what they think you mean. If you get a consistent answer from several people, you’re on the right track.

2. Know your expected outcome.

Now that you’ve targeted a specific goal, think about how you will know you’ve succeeded. Suppose my goal is to deliver engaging presentations as described above. How will I know I’ve done this? At some point I will need to collect some data to answer the question. I could administer a feedback survey. But it’s not the only option. Other options might be to ask a few key people in person after the session, or to collect observational data in the session such as the number of times the audience is observed checking their cell phones or leaving the room. Start with your vision of what success looks like for you, and create your measure based on that vision.

3. Identify your motivation and incorporate it into your strategy.

Whether you’re into vision boards or not, thinking about and visualizing the reasons behind your goals is a common practice for fitness goals, life goals, and more. The same strategy should apply to your IDP. With career development, we’re all motivated by different things. What is driving your desire to succeed? Is achievement of this goal going to allow you to spend more time with your family or provide a better life for them? Maybe your motivated by having the opportunity to do work you enjoy, and doing this work will bring you closer to it. Once you identify what it is, develop a strategy for keeping your motivation top of mind whenever the going gets tough. Hang some pictures near your desk, add relevant quotes to your phone background, etc.

4. Enlist support.

You’ve probably heard you’re more likely to stick to your workout plan if you make exercise social and share your goals with friends and family. Apply that same logic to your development plan, focusing on the people who are best suited to help you. Ask your coworkers to send you a signal when they see you demonstrating the behavior you’re trying to stop, or ask your direct reports to inform you when you say something they find helpful so you know to do that more often.  The point here is you shouldn’t go at this alone. Just like you use teamwork to complete projects and get the job done, you should also use it to facilitate your development.

5. Include your development goal deadlines with your “real job” deadlines.

I’ve actually had people tell me their IDP deadlines were secondary to their other deadlines. Below the surface, this suggests their development may be a low priority, and that’s a separate blog topic! However, if your development really is top priority, it needs to be managed with the same structure you use in your other priorities. Record your deadlines and set reminders using the same task management system you use on a daily basis (online calendar, paper planner, the latest task management app, etc.). Check out this article for more insight on how to meet deadlines you’ve set for yourself.

Does any of this resonate with your experience with IDPs, either your own or your clients’? What tips do you have for staying on track? Share them in the comments!

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Eileen Azzara