1-2-3 Development Plans

Unfortunately, ‘development plans’ are considered by many to be a negative thing. If someone is ‘on a plan’ in corporate America, this may mean that they are on their way out. In learning, a development plan provides a focus for areas of improvement (and we all have areas of improvement) and need to be part of our regular practice. The intent is to keep both the learner and the facilitator focused on the goals and strategies for improvement.

The 1-2-3 Development Plan provides an easy way to focus on the important few rather than trying to change everything at once.


Figure 1, 1-2-3 Development Plans – Learning Card 16

The first challenge for both the learner and facilitator is focusing on one development opportunity (for the next 3-6 months). The intent is not that the learner stops learning everything else, but identifies the critical area they want to improve in. The focus is indented to combat the flood of things that both our top and bottom performers need to improve. Top performers often think they can take on too much at once while the low performers seem to have a ‘laundry list’ of items they need to improve on. Development plans are designed to document and hold everyone accountable for improvement, so it is not the quantity of things that are developed that matter, but rather the effort(s) on, and outcomes from the one focus area that matters.

Often educators or managers may make recommendations about areas to improve, but if the learner is not committed to the change, the results are predictably poor. One learner put it this way, “I want to grow in (an) XYZ way that will give me other opportunities in the company, but my manager wants me to improve on ABC so that she can keep me here.” Differing development goals can cause resentment and disconnection (and may be part of the reason development plans are seen as negative rather than seen as opportunities to support the growth of the learner).

In the case of a low performer, the learner may not have much choice, but the key is not to make the change impossible. When we tell an adult they need to change a large list of things about themselves; their self-confidence is negatively impacted. If we ask a low performer to improve one thing over the next three months, and provide support for their change, there is a much higher chance of success. If you, as a facilitator of learning, or as a manager, think the learner cannot improve (or you cannot give them the time and support to improve), you are better off not doing a development plan and following a management (disciplinary) path (see Learning Card 17 for more info).

The one development opportunity should be actionable and achievable during the given period (most often 3-6 months). For example, a learner may have a development opportunity of, “building conflict resolution skills,” or “increasing their knowledge of pathophysiology”. Both examples are doable in a given period and are focused. Building conflict resolution skills may be a bit harder to measure, but we can work on measurements in the three follow-up sessions.

With the development opportunity in hand, the next step is to identify two development actions to help the learner get to the goal. Depending on resources, it is nice to have one development action to be learner-centric (and require the learner to show their initiative) and the other provided by the facilitator. In the conflict resolution example, the two development actions may include attending a ‘Crucial Conversations’ class (provided by the facilitator) and seeking feedback from peers and management on the way the learner handles conflict in real time (learner centered).

Attending a class may help the learner to pick up new skills, but then they will need to learn from their experience (see Learning Card 3). Development plans reflect a deliberate practice approach (Ericsson & Charness, 1997) of continuous improvement over time to develop expertise. The learner should have a development action plan that encourages them to keep their development opportunity in the forefront and improve every day.

The third section is setting up a cadence of accountability by identifying, up front, three follow-up times. Adults like to be held accountable (appropriately) and are more likely to keep a focus on improving, if they have a deadline. The intent is for both the learner and facilitator (or manager) to schedule a time to meet and ideally outline how the improvement will be measured. These meetings need to be more than ‘drive-bys’ (i.e. How are you doing? Good. Thanks. ) and should provide an opportunity for feedback (Learning Card 15).

If the learner has achieved their development goal (and sustained improvement) by one of the follow-up times, there may be an opportunity to challenge them to a new development opportunity. If the learner achieved the goal by the first check in then, the first occasion might have been a bit too easy, and the next once can dig a bit deeper.

As a leader, you need to model development as part of your every day practice. You should share your development plan publicly and show that it is not something to be hidden. Post yours in your office (or other public location) and ask your staff or students to help hold you accountable. The result of role modeling continuous development will outweigh any discomfort that you may have in sharing your areas for growth. Humility, and being vulnerable, go a long way (read anything by Brene Brown if you doubt it or watch her TED talks).

Application Experience:

Participants: Pairs (possibly outside of class)

Time to complete – 30 minutes

With a partner (or your manager), develop your own 1-2-3 development plan for the next 3-6 months. Be sure to focus on one development area only. Share your plan with your partner and ask for feedback about if it is focused, actionable and doable in the time period given.

This part of a series called “Learning That Works” by Jason Zigmont, Ph.D., (jay.zigmont@gmail.com ). For a video on this topic and more information, visit http://L16.LearningInHealthcare.com . The principles above are part of the core content (Learning Card 16) of the Foundations of Experiential Learning Manual (http://FEL.LearninginHealthcare.com ).


Ericsson, K.A., Charness N: Cognitive and Developmental Factors in Expert Performance, in Feltovich, P.J., Ford, K.M., Hoffman, R.R. (eds): Expertise in Context: Human and Machine. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1997

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