Creating Development Plans that Actually Work

Everyone seems to agree that creating development plans is a critical component of a truly effective performance management system. No  argument there. But development plans too often have the staying power of New Year’s resolutions.

What goes wrong? Why are development plans so notoriously difficult to generate and even more challenging to execute over time?

A few reasons are obvious. First, most of them extend over too long a period of time. Abolish the notion of an “annual development plan.” A year is far too long. If a development goal will take more than three months to complete, it is too big. Break it down into component parts or pick one important area within the overall area to work on. Otherwise, the development plan will fall into the realm of good intentions and be shuffled off into the one-ofthese- days stack.

Second, they often focus on the trivial. Faced with having to create a development plan (or recommend one for a subordinate) the manager too often picks up the course catalogue from a commercial seminar provider or the local community college to find something to fill in the blank.

Another obvious reason that development plans don’t cause real development is that they’re so vague that measuring any success of failure is impossible. Just what will you accept as evidence that George truly values diversity? Get real!

Mostly, though, development plans fail because we don’t have a solid and workable process for understanding how people develop and creating development plans that are likely: 1) to be stuck to, and 2) generate significant and sustained change. Let’s look at what really works.

What causes people to develop?

Most of the factors that influence an individual's ultimate effectiveness have been firmly established by the time the person is a member of an organization. His basic genetic endowment, her early family, school and other experiences, influential teachers, coaches, pastors and priests have long since had their influence. 

Since 1982 the Center for Creative Leadership has studied the ways in which successful executives acquire their skills. Their research has identified five broad categories of experiences they found to be developmental, as reported by several hundred managers who analyzed and identified the factors that resulted in their own growth:  

Challenging jobs

Being given a challenging job is the single most important source of development. Challenging jobs force rapid growth and learning. Dealing with crises, starting up an operation from scratch, fixing up troubled operations — these situations require individuals to cope with pressure and learn quickly. In absolute terms challenging assignments are the best teacher. They are the most likely to be remembered and teach the greatest variety and largest number of lessons.

Bosses and other people

Bosses serve as models. Ask a group of people to think back in their lives to that point when they transitioned from the world of school to the world of work, and then ask how many of them can remember their very first boss. Almost everybody will. Bosses, particularly first bosses, have an enormous impact on our development.

Note that the item is not, “good bosses.” We can learn as much from bad bosses about how we do not want to act as we can from good bosses who provide admirable models.


Hardships teach us about our limits and allow us to both learn and demonstrate our resilience. Making mistakes, getting stuck in dead-end jobs, surviving serious illness, being denied a well-deserved promotion, enduring life's traumas: these events cause us to look inward and reflect.

Off-the-job experiences

Experiences off the job, primarily community service, often afford opportunities to acquire and practice leadership skills the job can’t offer.

Training Programs

Training programs, the standard regimen of management development activities, are valuable less for what is learned directly than for the opportunity they presents individuals to build self-confidence by sizing themselves up against peers. The Center for Creative Leadership reports that managers find coursework valuable as a forum for trading tips, picking up different problem-solving methods, and comparing themselves with others.

Coursework and training programs can be used to provide specific skills that an individual is lacking, but just the fact that a course is available on a topic might suggest that the topic is not one that will be all that important in bringing about important long-term development. Hardly a day passes without a brochure or flyer arriving in the manager's in-basket announcing a new program in presentation skills or finance for the non-financial manager or communication skills or some other easily taught, easily learned skill. But genuine development does not come from easily taught and learned skill-development programs.

Where to focus?

There are several places to look to come up with good ideas on areas to focus development efforts:


Development activities can focus on one of two areas: improving areas of deficiency, and enhancing existing strengths. Research on successful development programs consistently comes to the same conclusion: people and organizations benefit more from building on strengths than from shoring up weaknesses. 

Marcus Buckingham puts it well in his book, Now Develop Your Strengths: “Most organizations take their employees’ strengths for granted and focus on minimizing their weaknesses. But this isn’t development, it is damage control.” Based on your own knowledge of skills that you are particularly good at, or information from past performance appraisals, you can identify a strength to be enhanced further to produce world-class performance

Damage Control

Don’t overlook the possibility that you may indeed have shortcomings that demand developmental attention. Even though efforts to shore up weaknesses may only result in a move from -6 to -2, doing so may be necessary to maintain membership on the team.

Achievement Orientation and Impact and Influence competencies

Several research studies confirm that there are two competencies that regularly predict success in organizational life better than any others: ACHIEVEMENT ORIENTATION and IMPACT AND INFLUENCE. Development of these two areas should always be considered high priorities, since they are confirmed predictors of success.

Performance appraisal feedback

What did the your last performance appraisal say? What were the significant strengths and areas for improvement noted? These are prime sources for development efforts.

Information from others

Other people with whom you or the individual regularly interacts are terrific sources of good data about where development efforts might be well placed. If you have a trusted friend in the organization, ask him what suggestions he might make for your development.

360-degree feedback data or employee survey results

If your organization uses a 360- degree feedback process, the information that it provides will be one of the best sources for suggestions on where development efforts should be placed. If your company conducts employee satisfaction surveys, the results may point out areas where you (and other managers) need to do more work.

The organization's core competencies

If your company has identified competencies that senior management expects everyone to display, these are a primary source of development ideas. Which of the competencies are you most a master of? In which of them are you least competent? Those are the top candidates for being targets for development efforts.

Personal goals and aspirations

It’s your life, it’s your career. Where do you want to go with it? What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you need to do to take you to where you want to be? That’s where you should concentrate some development efforts.

How to create a development plan that works?

There are eight components to an effective development plan. The best way to construct a workable development plan is simply to take a blank piece of paper and write down your answer to each item:

1. Knowledge, skill or competency area to be developed

What is the specific skill that you are going to acquire or enhance? The more specific your description of the skill you’re going to acquire, the easier it will be to tell whether you actually have developed it.

2. Benefit to your organization

Why is it important to your company that you increase your skill in this area or develop this competency? What difference will it make to the organization? Don’t waste development efforts on building skills that don’t have a payoff for your company.

3. Personal payoff

What will be the benefit to you if you improve in this area? The clearer you are about the reasons why an improvement in a certain area will provide a specific personal payoff, the less likely you will be to abandon your efforts when the predictable obstacles arise.

4. Measures to be used

How will you determine whether you actually have made a significant improvement in this area? How will somebody know that you are actually better than you were before? Are there numerical, countable measures? Will comments and reactions from colleagues be sufficient? How will you know that change has occurred? What yardstick will you use to judge your success?

5. Baseline assessment

To start, the individual should take no action other than collect data on how often the developmental area arises in her job and how she handles it when it does arise. Collecting baseline data will achieve several results: it may confirm to the individual that indeed his boss was right when he recommended that this be an area for concentration. Awareness of the area may immediately generate ideas on how performance could be improved.

Collecting baseline data will also help demonstrate later on that development indeed has occurred. Whatever the developmental need may be, ultimate effectiveness will be greater if the very first thing the person does is collect his own data to confirm that yes, indeed, this is an area that requires some attention. Answer these questions: How good are you in this area right now? How do you know? What evidence do you have that tells you that this really is an area worth spending time in?

6. Resources required

The resources required are frequently, but never exclusively, financial. If the individual needs to attend a training program or educational experience, the funds will need to be allocated. If the individual needs to purchase a book or computer software to learn skills, somebody will need to write the check. If an offsite visit to another operation is required, somebody will have to spring for the trip. The most important resource required for the execution of most development plans is time. Answer these questions: What will you need in order to complete your plan? Will you need to devote a significant amount of time to your plan's activities? Where will this time come from? Will you need money? How much? Is it in the budget? What management support will you need?

7. Completion date

Thinking in terms of an “annual development plan” is a mistake. A year is far too long. Construct development plans so that something significant can be done in a quarter — 90 days. If your development goal will take more than three months to complete, it is too big. Break it down into component parts or pick one important area within the overall area to work on.

8. Week-by-week plan

A common reason why development plans don’t accomplish too much is that we don’t break them down into manageable chunks. If you think through what you will need to do in order to develop a particular skill or competency on a week-by-week basis, you are much more likely to complete the plan since you will have a clear road map of the action you need to take.

The boss’s responsibility for development

Who’s responsible for development? If “all development is self-development,” then does the manager have any role at all? Yes. The manager has six key responsibilities for the development of his or her subordinates:

1. Identify key individual and organizational development needs

While the individual is primarily responsible for his or her own development, the manager needs to be able to recommend areas for consideration.

2. Coach subordinate’s selection of area for developmental concentration

The manager needs to recommend — sometimes strongly — that developmental attention be paid to some areas first.

3. Coach subordinate’s construction of development plan

The most common mistakes that people make in creating development plans is to make them too big and too general. The manager needs to communicate the value of specificity and the importance of short term / low goals. Asking questions like, “How will you actually do that?” and “For example . . . ?” and “When do you think you’ll have that done?” can be extremely helpful in creating a specific and workable plan.

4. Bless the plan / Fund the plan

The responsibility for developing a systematic, logical plan is the subordinate's, not the boss's. The manager’s appropriate role is first to bless the plan: to review it, ask questions, make suggestions for improvements, provide counsel and advice. The boss's other responsibility is to fund the plan — to provide whatever resources are needed for the approved plan to be carried out.

5. Create developmental opportunities

The best way to create developmental opportunities is to provide the subordinate with challenging work, ongoing feedback on performance, and recognition for task accomplishment.

6. Follow-up to assure successful execution

The manager needs to hold individual team members responsible for successful completion of their development plans, just as the manager holds them accountable for successful completion of all other job duties.

How training fits into development

Training isn’t “development.” Too often development plans consist of nothing more than attending a training program. No wonder no one develops.

Training is simply one component in a complete development plan. Here are some suggestions to make training a genuine force for change in a in an effective development process:

Never start a development plan with a training program

Training should never be scheduled as one of the first activities in the plan. At the very beginning of a development process, most people don't know what they need to learn. They have no internally-tested data that tells them that the area they have identified truly is one that they need to learn something about and do something different in.

Identify your objectives first

Here’s the question to ask of training programs: What is it, as a result of this training program, that the individual will be able to do that she can’t do right now? Not what will she learn, not what will she appreciate, but what will she do different? Without some initial data on what the individual is doing right now, it is difficult to formulate worthwhile behavioral change objectives.

Contact the trainer

If the training involves an instructor-led program, call the instructor in advance with a list of personal learning objectives and ask if they will be met. Calling the trainer in advance provides two additional benefits that enhance the learning experience. First, knowing the reasons that this particular individual is attending the program encourages the trainer to make sure that all of those objectives are covered. Second, the facilitator will go out of his way to meet the individual and make sure, over the course of the session, that the program is delivering what was promised.

Focus on application

Just learning new ideas and techniques and approaches doesn’t do any good if they are not applied. Throughout the training program, the primary question each participant should be asking is, How can I use this back on the job?

Build alliances

Training programs provide an additional important benefit independent of whatever subject matter is taught. They allow participants to interact with each other and build their professional network. Look for opportunities to interact with others in the course of the training session.  

Seek immediate opportunities to practice

New skills decay rapidly if they are not immediately put to use.

The need for the manager and the subordinate to conduct a post-program assessment is obvious (but often ignored). The manager who schedules a twenty-minute post-session briefing or requires a one-page bullet-item summary of key points learned (and, more important, actions to be taken based on the program) will not only maximize the dollars spent on training but significantly increase the probability that real development will occur. To maximize training’s effectiveness, good managers require the individual to teach the main points, key concepts, or critical techniques to a group of colleagues immediately upon return. Sharing the learning maximizes the investment that the organization makes in the individual. More important, anyone who attends a training program knowing that he’s going to have to sift the wheat from the chaff and then serve the wheat to a group of colleagues will be a far more active participant in the learning process.

Can we use the individual’s job as a developmental experience?

The tasks, assignments and activities that a person performs on the job can also serve as developmental experiences. By assigning specific projects to her subordinates, a manager can provide a developmental experience to a subordinate while the person is also meeting his core job responsibilities. The Center for Creative Leadership’s research indicates that a particular assignment will serve as a developmental opportunity if it has most of these characteristics:  

  • Both success and failure are possible and visible
  • Requires aggressive, “take charge” leadership
  • Involves working with new people
  • Requires influencing people, activities and factors over which the individual has no direct control Involves high task variety
  • Will be closely watched by people whose opinions count

Here are some examples they provide of special assignments that have a high probability of causing real development:  

  • Plan an off-site meeting or conference
  • Go to a college campus as a recruiter
  • Run a company meeting or department picnic
  • Do a project with another function
  • Manage the visit of a VIP
  • Summarize a new trend, process or technique and present to others
  • Teach someone how to do something you’re skilled at

Too often, we overlook excellent opportunities for development because we simply aren’t looking for them. Consider this description of a special assignment and see if it seems to provide a genuine development opportunity:

You will head up a project team made up of people from throughout the organization. Your team will be given a highly measurable and challenging financial goal to achieve, but in the past, every team that has been assigned a similar project has made the goal. You will not have formal authority over anyone on the team but must guide them by means of persuasion and your personal credibility and influence. You will be highly visible, working closely with a large number of people both inside and outside the organization. As project manager, you will interact with the senior leadership team of both your company and other organizations. You will meet a large number of the community’s leaders in the social service, government and educational domains, interacting with them in both business and social settings. The project and your personal performance will be watched closely by large numbers of influential people. There will be significant rewards for success and penalties for failure. You will work very hard but will be very likely to succeed, since everyone before who previously has accepted this assignment has succeeded at it. At the end of the project — assuming you also succeed — there will be a major celebration.

Doesn’t this sound like a perfect developmental opportunity? It arises annually in virtually every organization. It’s called, “United Way Coordinator.”

Get to work

Creating and executing development plans is the task that is most quickly put aside in the crush of operational necessities. But if the development plan is treated the same as any other project would be, with timelines and measures assigned and milestones and accountabilities identified, it will be just as successfully completed. Genuine development is possible for every person in any organization, if the three key precepts are followed: Build on strengths, set short term/low goals, and use the job as the primary focus of all development efforts.

Use the form in the pdf to plan your development efforts. Click here to download the form.

Dick Grote is president of Grote Consulting Corporation in Dallas, Texas. He is the author of The Complete Guide to Performance Appraisal and The Performance Appraisal Question and Answer Book. He is the developer of the web-based performance management system, GROTEAPPROACH. Reprinted with permission of Dick Grote, Grote Consulting Corporation, Phone: 1-972-702-7555, E-mail: dickgrote@groteconsulting.com

Content date: Sunday, December 28, 2003
Author: Dick Grote (dickgrote@groteconsulting.com )
Company: Grote Consulting Corporation (http://www.GroteConsulting.com)

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