Your Individual Development Plan

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

This question is one of the lynchpins of the personal development field. It’s usually followed by instructions to visualize yourself having achieved those goals, and maybe an admonishment to ask yourself if what you’re doing now will get you there.

None of this is hard. What is hard, though, is making a plan that will get you there, once you cut out all the stuff that won’t. It’s fairly easy to figure out the steps you need to take for a big project, even one that spans several years. It’s harder to plan for big life goals — things like becoming better at your job, spending more time with your family, getting more organized.

To help with this kind of planning, I’m borrowing an idea from the business world: the Individual Development Plan, or “IDP” for short. An IDP is a sort of agreement between an employee and their employer to work towards a set of goals together.

There’s no requirement that your develop an IDP in the context of a business, though. Anyone can put together an IDP that helps them work towards their personal goals. At its root, an IDP is simply a personal plan for growth — something we should all have, regardless of who pays our wages.

Creating your Individual Development Plan

There is no set format that an IDP has to take. A single page listing goals and steps you can take to get you closer to them is perfectly adequate.

If your employer offers some sort of IDP program, speak with your human resources department about getting some guidance — you may find your employer is willing to pay for quite a few steps along the way, if they feel a better you will add value to their company.

But going it alone is just fine, too — maybe you’re an entrepreneur, or a student, or a worker in the kind of job where personal development isn’t a priority. This isn’t rocket science; it’s not even model rocket science.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Take inventory: This is the hardest part of creating an IDP: you need to know what your goals are. Don’t worry too much, though — it’s perfectly fine to shift your goals as you work through your IDP.

    While considering your goals, focus on developing your strengths — not compensating for your weaknesses. You will have a much harder time motivating yourself to work against your nature than to work with it by doing things you like and have some talent at. You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to be good at everything.

  2. Write a mission statement (optional): A personal mission statement isn’t for everyone, but many people find having one to be a useful standard to measure your actions against. The idea is, you can always ask yourself, “does this action do [whatever your mission is]?”
  3. Do research: Find out a) what you need to learn to improve or enter a new area, and b) how you can gain that knowledge. Look at job descriptions, career guides, trade magazines, and other sources and figure out what your next steps are. Then identify the places — schools, seminars, conventions, mentors, books, blogs, etc. — that offer what you need.
  4. Develop two plans: Although you’re aiming towards a long-term goal (or set of goals), what you do in the short-term is going to affect your long-term planning. This is life we’re talking about, not civic engineering — the step aren’t always clear. So write a short-term plan for the next year, and a longer-term plan for the next 5 years. Again, these don’t have to be all that complex; listing 2 or 3 things you want to do for each goal is probably sufficient.
  5. Figure out an assessment standard: How will you measure your success as you move forward? Goals that can’t be assessed in some way are very hard to stay motivated to work towards. Create a set of interim milestones — passing a class, getting an article published, making x dollars — and pay attention to whether you’re meeting them.
  6. Reassess periodically: Technically this happens after the IDP is created, but knowing you’ll reassess every 6 months or a year will help you make better decisions now, so I put it here. Make sure your plans and goals stay in alignment and that your goals still make sense. Do not let yourself stick to an IDP for the sake of seeing through a commitment; over several years, your goals are bound to change, and your IDP should change accordingly.
  7. Commit and take action: An IDP does you no good if it hangs neglected on a cork board for three years with the promise that you’ll get to it “someday”. Once you’ve made a plan, commit to taking the first steps immediately.

What should be in your Individual Development Plan?

Although the requirements for learning what you need/want to learn will vary widely, you should at least consider how each of the following could fit:

  • Courses and workshops: From formal university instruction to extension classes to one-off events like seminars.
  • Reading: Books, magazines, websites, newsletters, trade journals.
  • Networking: Don’t neglect the value that building connections within your current niche or your desired one can bring. Figure out who in your field is worth following, and how to get close to them.
  • Mentoring: A special kind of networking; consider asking a leader in your field to “take you under their wing”.
  • Ride-alongs/shadowing: Hands-on experience is invaluable. Ask to spend a day with someone whose knowledge and skills you admire, learning their work from their perspective.
  • Outreach: Form or join a group devoted to your topics.
  • Reassignment/move to a new job: Ask your employer to shift you into a different department or position, or find work that better matches where you want to end up.

Not all of this is necessary, of course, but there are lots of creative ways to gain new skills and bodies of knowledge or develop existing ones that we simply don’t know about.

An IDP isn’t a binding contract; it’s an agreement, or a statement of intentions. The main point is to figure out what actions you could be taking and would like to take but aren’t. If you throw it out and start over in six months, that’s fine — as long as you’re doing something in the mean time.

If you find you’re stuck in a rut with no idea of how to get out, take an afternoon and write up your own IDP. You might well be surprised at what occurs to you when you start thinking about not just where you would rather be but how you can get there.

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