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Building a Successful Development Plan


Building a Successful Development Plan


Copyright © 2006 Marion Stone
Used with permission of the author:
Author: Marion Stone
Cornerstone Connections
10 May 2007 

After a long discussion where the manager and the employee have discussed this year’s objectives, last year’s objectives, progress made, obstacles, new projects, ratings and possibly even behaviours, they both stop talking, look awkwardly at their pieces of paper and realise that it is time to complete "The Development Plan".

What makes completing this part of the performance appraisal so torturous? Why are development plans so light on real goals and challenges? How many development plans have you come across that simply refer to "Attend time management workshop" or "Attend advanced Excel training" because the employee did not know what else to write? 

At this point I hasten to add that intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with time management workshops or IT training, however if your aim is to develop an organisation that is flexible to the demands of the marketplace, then more thought needs to be given to what learning is taking place and why. The great father of action learning, Reg Revans, said "Learning must be greater than change for the organisation to survive".

The plan equips for the future

So a successful development plan has employees learning things that are relevant to the growth of the organisation. 

How do we know what is relevant to the growth of the organisation? 

Well, the organisational strategy and goals will tell us where the organisation is heading and at the individual level, their objectives will show how their work supports the strategy. 

Thus, the first important component of a successful development plan is that it should equip the individual to achieve their objectives. Has the employee managed a project before? Will they know how to approach and influence key stakeholders or build a team? If they are to manage people, do they know even basic employment law or how to manage performance? Will they be required to use new technology? It sounds obvious, but a careful analysis of the skills and behaviours required for each objective will reveal important information for the development plan.

The plan accounts for past performance

An important element of learning, is reviewing past experience. What went well and what didn’t and why? 

Learning is a process – one way of looking at it is as a cycle composed of 4 steps:

The Learning Cycle


1. Having an Experience
3. Concluding from the Experience 4. Planning the Next Steps

2. Reviewing the Experience

Without the review, conclude and plan steps, individuals would be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Evaluation of past performance is an important part of moving on. So, a successful development plan accounts for past performance. Skills and behaviours found to be lacking when considering the past year’s performance should be made part of the development plan. Equally, skills and behaviours found to be a strength can be further enhanced or harnessed to achieve following year’s objectives.

The plan encourages the individual

So often, development plans are seen as a kind of punishment for not quite making the grade. "Your presentations lack substance and clarity so you need to attend a presentation skills course." "You failed to engage the stakeholders of that project so we’ll send you on an influencing course." 

Not surprisingly, employees feel like they are serving some kind of penance when completing the actions on their development plan. 

Is it possible to create a plan that motivates and engages people and encourages them to take ownership for the plan? I believe it is and in order for that to be the case, there must be something in it for the individual.

This does not mean sending employees on expensive residential courses in order to motivate them. The solution is to include learning objectives in the development plan that will lead them closer to their personal goals. 

What does that look like? Does it mean supporting employees to learn skills that are not relevant to the organisation? Not at all, however it does acknowledge that an individual might have personal goals and plans that are outside of their current department and even possibly outside the company. By including learning objectives relating to the individual’s personal goals, you will capture the energy and motivation that they have for their personal goals in order to drive forward the whole development plan.

Employees can be supported in the exploration of their personal goals through trained line managers, onsite career coaches, on-line tools or personal development workshops. The benefit of providing this kind of support is that it enables individuals to assess the motivational fit between themselves and the organisation – what do I really want to do with my life and how does that fit with what I am doing currently. The better the motivational fit, the higher the level of engagement will be with the organisation and therefore the more responsibility they will take for their development within it.

The plan includes the right components

You ask, why should one have a plan at all? After all, don’t we learn all the time? Why is it necessary to write it down? 

For learning to be truly effective it needs to be translated into action. The last step of the learning cycle refers to "planning the next steps". 

How many of you know that if you do not write it down it gets forgotten – from the minutes of the management meeting to the shopping list for dinner! To build an organisation of learners, it is necessary to develop the discipline of all 4 steps of the learning cycle.

The essential ingredients of a development plan are very simple:

  • What are you going to do? (Learning objective)
  • How are you going to learn it? (What activities will help you develop the objective?)
  • When are you going to do it? (Timing)
  • What help will you need? (Time, coaching from manager, finance, introductions to other experts)
  • How will you know when you have been successful? (Measures)

Most plans are in some type of table format (although they need not be) – mind maps, lists and other formats are all acceptable as long as they capture the essence of the above headings. Most importantly there should be space for some review notes.

The key to writing a good development plan is to define a very specific learning objective. Objectives such as "improve management of my team" or "learn more about excel" are difficult to take action on and almost impossible to measure. Ask the "Why?" question to find out the core learning need.

Question: ‘Why do you want to improve the management of your team?
Response: To increase motivation levels.
Question: Why?
Response: Good performers are frustrated that a few team members are not "pulling their weight."
Learning need: Management of underperformance

The plan is realistic

In reality it is neither possible nor practical to focus on more than about 3 well-defined development goals. Simplicity is the key ensuring that a development is a live tool.

Plans should be:

  • real not based on intentions
  • ambitious but not look so far ahead that they ignore the prerequisite next steps.

Used appropriately, development plans are another a tool that will drive high performance through the encouragement of learning.

Marion Stoneis an experienced training and development consultant with over 10 years of experience both nationally and internationally. Her comprehensive understanding of training strategy and practice has been acquired in various sectors including manufacturing, FMCG, construction, media and travel. Her work has focussed predominantly on middle managers although she has worked with various levels within the business from the shop floor to senior managers. Marion holds a first degree in chemistry (UCT) and an MSc in Strategic Training and Development (University of Surrey Roehampton). She is accredited by the South African Board of Personnel Practitioners as a Chartered HR Practitioner. Her diverse background ensures a practical approach to development activities that are joined up with organisational goals and processes. She can be contacted at marion@cornerstoneconnections.co.zaandwww.cornerstoneconnections.co.za.

Cornerstone Connectionsbuilds connections between the organisation and it’s employees and between managers and their teams. Consultancy and training are offered in the areas of: 

  • Talent retention
  • Personal and career development
  • Performance management
  • Coaching and feedback
  • Team effectiveness                                      

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


C: +27 (0)82 416 7712

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