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Improve your career with the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle


Want to boost your career? One way is to use the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle—a process for learning and improvement. In this scientific method for action-oriented change, you test a change by planning it, doing it, studying the results, and acting on what you’ve learned. Producing multiple small improvements, the PDSA cycle is conducted multiple times before sufficient improvements can be implemented.

Here’s how PDSA applies in the context of your career:

Plan: Develop an idea for improving your career.

Do: Carry out the incremental improvement.

Study: Determine if the improvement corresponds with your hopes and expectations.

Act: Run through the cycle again and again to improve continually on many levels.

Using this process will keep you engaged in an intentional, continual, and limitless improvement journey.

Precursors to using the PDSA cycle

Two steps are critical precursors for developing and moving forward with your plan:

  • identifying your 3-year professional goal
  • seeking feedback regarding your goal.

Identify your 3-year professional goal

Determine what you see yourself doing in 3 years. This exercise should result in three to five statements reflecting the professional activities you envision yourself doing. This is the most critical step in the process—taking the time to thoroughly explore your thoughts on this question. Focus on what you see yourself doing, not the particular title or role you’re aiming for. For instance, instead of envisioning yourself as a nurse manager, make a list of behavioral statements regarding that role. Examples include:

  • “I will supervise frontline nurses.”
  • “I will be responsible for completing frontline nurses’ schedules.”
  • “I will coach and provide education to frontline nurses.”
  • “I will be an influential leader on the unit where I work and will improve quality and safety.”

Seek feedback

Ask for feedback from two or three current or recent colleagues you respect. What do they see you doing in 3 years? Take notes on their feedback without judgment.

No idea is too silly to consider. In fact, the idea that may seem the most outrageous to you now may be your “stretch” goal—one that seems nearly impossible. The process of dreaming for that goal can motivate you to reach beyond what seems possible—to bring amazing results. Think of it as something you’ve been seeking but have lacked the confidence to strive for or even articulate.

PLAN: Take small, informal steps toward your goal

Be deliberate and conscious of opportunities that come your way, people you interact with, and situations you can learn from. If you stay observant, you’ll notice opportunities arising during daily activities—informal opportunities to learn and grow that can give you added experience and help you hone your skills. For example, if you want to gain experience completing a schedule, volunteer to help with scheduling on your unit. Your first attempt may be difficult and require many hours of work. But as you practice doing it several times using the PDSA cycle, you’ll learn how and where to improve. When you work on your next schedule, you will incorporate the lessons you’ve learned and will be able to complete it faster and with fewer mistakes. Take advantage of these informal opportunities to move toward your 3-year goal.

Inform those around you of your goal. Don’t underestimate the power of connections and networking. Let family members, friends, and community and organizational contacts know what your goal is. Consider joining the American Nurses Association and creating a Linkedin.com profile to broaden the depth and breadth of your connections.

DO: Take formal steps toward your goal

Study job postings related to your goal, both within and outside your geographic area. Speak with your supervisor or other leaders in your organization to learn what employers are looking for in terms of formal education and certification. Educational and certification requirements will become an important priority as you move toward your goal. Determine the most feasible approach to achieving those requirements, including the timeline, cost, and required deliverables. Consider virtual-learning opportunities, such as online universities, and find out if your employer provides tuition assistance.

Once you’ve selected the education or certification you’re seeking, construct a calendar with milestones for completion. This calendar will serve as scaffolding for goal achievement. Whenever possible, marry the work you’re currently doing with your formal education or certification to avoid overburdening yourself and to provide meaningful context to your education.

STUDY: Continually update and improve your résumé

If you don’t have a résumé, create one. Assess it for clarity and whether it will stand out in the crowd. Ask yourself, “Would this résumé make an employer want to learn more about me?”

Evaluate your résumé to determine if it accurately reflects:

  • who you are and what you can bring to an organization; more organizations are realizing that the employer-employee cultural fit may be even more important than a candidate’s technical skills
  • your competency in performing relevant technical skills
  • positive outcomes in your current organization to which you’ve contributed
  • your job history
  • your educational background and certifications; expect potential employers to conduct a primary-source verification of your listed education and certifications.

Once you’ve refined your résumé through multiple PDSA cycles, test it by applying for a new job. Although this job application may start out as a trial, it may lead to your next job. Periodically improve your résumé as you gain knowledge or experience and apply for new jobs. (See Evaluate your résumé using PDSA by clicking the PDF icon above.)

ACT: Reach or exceed your goal

You should now be ready to put your résumé out there and see if it gets the response you were hoping for. This may take multiple PDSA cycles—for instance, posting your résumé, not getting the response you’re seeking, improving your résumé, and trying again.

Expect to invest at least 5 hours each month to thoughtful reflection on lessons learned and the next steps you need to take to boost your career. Your 3-year goal can become reality through your focus and persistence in the practice of continual improvement. Using the PDSA cycle of learning and improvement can enable you to reach your potential.

Selected references

Bolles RN. What Color Is Your Parachute? 2014: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers. New York: Random House; 2013.

Buckingham M. Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. New York: Free Press; 2010.

Buckingham M, Clifton DO. Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press; 2001.

Deming WE. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; 2000.

Penn BK Wilson LD, Rosseter R. Transitioning from nursing practice to a teaching role. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. 2008;13(3):Manuscript 3. doi:10.3912/OJIN.Vol13No03Man03. Accessed December 15, 2013.

Raines CF, Taglaireni ME. Career pathways in nursing: entry points and academic progression. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. 2008;13(3):Manuscript 1. doi:10.3912/OJIN.Vol13No03Man01. Accessed December 15, 2013.

Yate M. Knock ‘Em Dead Résumés: How to Write a Killer Résumé That Gets You Job Interviews. 10th ed. Avon, MA: Adams Media; 2012.

Shirley Cahill is a senior strategic process improvement consultant at Inova Health System in Fairfax, Virginia.

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