Benefits and Pitfalls of Individual Development Plans

What are the pros and cons of Individual Development Plans (IDPs)?

Back in April, I was contacted by an employee who, along with everyone else in his section of an agency that shall remain nameless, was being required to develop an Individual Development Plan (IDP). This employee also happened to be within a year of retirement. He asked me what he should do in this situation.

IDPs are designed to be used by managers and employees to identify developmental assignments that will enhance an employee’s performance and/or potential for promotion. If used correctly, IDPs can be an effective tool for career advancement.

Before I delve further into the area of IDPs and employee development, I need to let you know why I am qualified to speak on a topic other than retirement. Back in the days when I was a fed, I managed an employee development center and supervised several career counselors. After I retired, while I was building up my retirement business, I worked as an adjunct consultant with Right Management, one of the “big 3” outplacement firms. And I’m qualified to administer and interpret the Strong Interest Inventory® and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

What Do Individual Development Plans (IDPs) Do?

In my experience with IDPs, I found that:

  • They allow an employee to express his/her developmental needs; and
  • They allow an engaged manager to provide meaningful developmental activities to his/her employees; but
  • They are often misused and treated as “all or nothing” panaceas for a real or perceived lack of management attention to the career development of employees.

It’s clear that the agency is the winner if motivated employees partner with supportive managers to develop the employee’s skills for the benefit of the agency. An IDP can be a helpful tool in this type of situation.

Pitfalls of Individual Development Plans

However, many times I have seen the Individual Development Plan used as a blanket, one-size-fits-all solution to agency shortcomings. Very often a requirement that all employees develop an IDP is part of a settlement agreement where the agency lost a grievance or a discrimination complaint that had as part of its basis the lack of developmental opportunities.

But not all employees want or need IDPs! Consider the person who contacted me, the person with a year to go until they retire. What about the GS-13 Revenue Agent whose next logical developmental step would be a promotion to a GS-14 manager, but who does well at their job and has no interest in management as a career? What do we do with these folks?

How about changing settlement agreements to read that “all interested employees should be given the opportunity to develop an Individual Development Plan and shall receive all necessary support from their managers?”

As long as we’re on the topic of IDPs, let’s consider that in many agencies, an IDP is viewed as a requirement for an employee to receive any training. If I want some specific training and have it listed in an IDP, I’ll get the training – right?

Not so fast. As a former manager of a training budget, I know that there is never enough money to fund the training desires/needs of all agency employees who want training. This leads to the disparagement of an IDP as being a useless tool. “Well, I had training in my Individual Development Plan and the agency never provided it; what good is it to have an IDP?”

How to Get the Most Out of Individual Development Plans

How can we make the IDP what it was meant to be; a valuable development tool? Here are some ideas:

  • Never make IDPs mandatory for all employees. Let those who are seeking advancement and development have an IDP and leave the rest of the employees alone.
  • Do not view the IDP as solely a vehicle for obtaining training. Consider details to positions that would help the employee develop or advance.
  • Ensure that managers provide support to those employees who want to develop their skills.
  • View IDPs as a way to enhance and develop current skills, not simply as a way to advance in the agency.

Agencies can request to have John Grobe, or another of Federal Career Experts' qualified instructors, deliver a retirement or transition seminar to their employees. FCE instructors are not financial advisers and will not sell or recommend financial products to class participants. Agency Benefits Officers can contact John Grobe at to discuss schedules and costs.

About the Author

John Grobe is President of Federal Career Experts, a firm that provides pre-retirement training and seminars to a wide variety of federal agencies. FCE’s instructors are all retired federal retirement specialists who educate class participants on the ins and outs of federal retirement and benefits; there is never an attempt to influence participants to invest a certain way, or to purchase any financial products. John and FCE specialize in retirement for special category employees, such as law enforcement officers.