I recently heard an employee say, “The IDP stands for Ignore Development Potential.” What a shame. The individual development plan – the IDP – is a great opportunity for dialogue. It always promised to promote growth and fuel development-focused conversations. Unfortunately, it rarely went anywhere beyond that annual conversation. In fact, employees came to expect nothing to happen until the next IDP season rolled around and yet another conversation showed up on the calendar. Yes…yes…it is the individual’s responsibility, too –but I’ve rarely seen an IDP discussion initiated by an individual contributor.

It’s clear that employees want to learn and grow. It’s also clear that those who see a future inside the organization are more engaged, productive, and committed to their work. In fact, it’s easy for critical talent to envision their future with a competitor if managers and talent leaders won’t help them see and plan that future inside the current organization.

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

Here are a few tips:

Reinforce it!

Use the IDP to 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. Think about what might change if IDP’s were sent a message like this: “We believe every employee—at every level—is learning every day. Our IDP is a chance to hear about what you’re learning.”

Upgrade the Employee Role!

The plan belongs primarily to the employee, so think carefully about who should be involved in your IDP process. Sure, the author of the IDP (the employee) is involved, but when? If an IDP is intended to inspire an employee to learn and grow, who would be better at designing it than the learner? Include employees in the design of the process and framework so it truly gives them the space to say what interests them most and what development areas are most meaningful for their futures. Also, keep it flexible. If an employee wants to plan for three months or three years, encourage them to set timelines that meet their needs. We know shorter-term goals often make more sense in today’s ever-changing work environment, but ultimately, the plan belongs to the individual employee, so empower them to set timelines that work for them.

Widen the Net!

IDPs can offer a treasure trove of information. Content from IDPs can take the talent search wider and deeper. Hidden talent can be discovered when IDP development focus areas and progress steps are shared broadly. This may be a detour from your normal practice, but the time is right to try something new. Offer hiring managers a wider lens for viewing existing talent. Communicating employees’ development needs, wants, and aspirations can be easily done with technology and could potentially increase the willingness of many individuals to share what they know, what they want to know, what they aspire to, and how they plan to grow.

Look at Opportunities – Plural!

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—make the IDP flexible enough to accommodate changes as they occur. IDPs can expand the horizon of choices when they not only allow for but also encourage employees to identify the types of experiences they want versus a role or title. Roles and titles can change. Planning that is too narrow can result in disappointment when change happens. Focusing on experiences versus job titles can build resilience and provide alternatives when the landscape shifts.

Conversation is King

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.


IDPs boost an employee’s self-awareness, which is a crucial competency for success. They also 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 and with a solid plan for the future, they’re more alert to opportunities and ready to experience that future within the organization.

Employees who know they’re valued and feel they have growth possibilities are committed and ready to do what’s needed to meet objectives. In other words, their development potential is ignited.