The 70/20/10 principle is a timeworn axiom in learning and development. This is the theory that most development occurs through challenging work assignments (70%), some through personal interaction with mentors and colleagues (20%), and a meagre fraction (10%) through formal training programmes.
The problem with the concept, however, is that it has little empirical validation. In fact, the widely credited source of the principle, the 1988 book The Lessons of Experience by Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo and Ann Morrison, emphasised the range of different ways that executive development can take place.
Another problem with the 70/20/10 principle, or the way it is applied, is that the three learning processes are often treated as ‘either-or’, or substitutable activities – but focusing on any one element in isolation can miss the point of executive development.
A major piece of LBS research drawing on the findings of a survey of more than 800 alumni and executives from a multinational banking and financial services organisation has led to the formulation of a new framework for executive development.
Labelled ‘UNIQ’, the framework uses concepts such as meaningful learning, action learning and the role of identity in the workplace to develop an integrative model of the learning process.
“There are many views out there about how to accelerate executive development, but they are really fragmented, and many of them are unproven,” said Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School and one of the study’s authors. “We wanted to find a way to bring these views together, and then test out our new model with some solid data.”
Testing the intuitive insight that learning ‘magic’ really arises as a result of the interaction of the three core activities of understanding (UN), identity (I) and action or quest (Q), the model focuses on the three development pathways between them and suggests a subtly different approach to learning for working professionals.
The multi-method study, including interviews and a follow-up survey, aimed to shed light on which of the activities and pathways were most used and most effective. The results showed that executives do, indeed, spend most of their time on action-taking (challenging work assignments in the 70/20/10 principle), which of course is associated with individual success.
The more surprising finding is the degree of importance that respondents placed on identity-focused work (developing an understanding of how you relate to others).
In other words, getting things done matters – but taking the time to understand yourself, and to reflect on your self-identity in relation to your formal training and your day-to-day activities, is at least as important.
“There are many views about how to accelerate executive development but they are fragmented and many are unproven”
Analysis of the survey responses suggests that 40/40/20 would be a more accurate estimate of the respective ratios of the three processes than 70/20/10, but this also misses the point, which is: it’s not how the activities work in isolation, but how they are combined that matters.
The UNIQ framework in more detail
You can use the framework in a number of different ways. For starters, it’s useful to think about which of the three activities comes most naturally to you. Of course, everyone ends up using some combination of the three, but if you lean too much towards one activity ahead of the others, problems arise:
Authoritative leaders put an emphasis on understanding. People follow them because they are knowledgeable when it comes to issues that are important to the organisation. But authoritative leaders have significant weaknesses – they lack practical experience of how their ideas can be applied, and have no sense of the effect they have on those around them.
Empathetic leaders put an emphasis on identity. People follow them because they build emotional connections with those around them and they are good at influencing others. Their weaknesses stem from the fact that they have no particular body of expertise to fall back on, and lack a practical sense of what needs doing.
Decisive leaders puts an emphasis on action. People follow them because they get things done and because they have a high-energy style. Their weaknesses arise from their scant regard for expertise or scientific evidence, and lack of empathy for those expected to do their bidding.
“It is useful to reflect on which of these three styles of leadership you gravitate to,” explains Professor Birkinshaw, “because that helps you identify development opportunities for yourself. For example, if your style is authoritative and knowledge-based, you may need to work on your people skills.”
The second use of the framework is that it helps make the pros and cons of different styles of leadership explicit. There are tensions that need to be resolved between each pair of activities as follows:
Understanding and action. The tension between understanding and action is often referred to as the ‘knowing-doing gap’: we recognise what is required, but our capacity to execute a difficult decision is limited.
Identity and action. The tension between identity and action is summed up in Herminia Ibarra’s book Act like a Leader, Think like a Leaderi, which argues that we often become stuck in a role because we behave in a way that reflects our sense of self. To shift how others see us (e.g., as a leader) we must experiment with new behaviours first.
Understanding and identity. The tension here is the rational vs emotional behavioural dichotomy, described in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slowii. One useful piece of advice on resolving this tension comes from Ron Heifetz, who encourages leaders to “get on the balcony” to generate a detached assessment of how they are interacting with their colleagues, rather than staying “on the dancefloor”iii.
Third, to help overcome these tensions it is important to create a dynamic interplay between activities. The researchers call these “the pathways of development”, as illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The pathways of development
Sense-making, the first pathway, is the process of interpreting the consequences of our behaviour (action), and how others relate to us (identity) in order to build a richer sense (understanding) of the business world. This means taking stock and reflecting on the insights learned in classroom sessions. One respondent noted: “I sometimes forget to step back and build on the formal learning. I have revisited the [formal programme] material and found this useful.” Another commented: “Can you step out from your personal situation, without being drained by some bad feeling? This is what will give you the real tools to become a leader. The majority of people get stuck here.”
The second pathway, self-discovery, is the process of figuring out who we are in the workplace (identity) by reflecting on the codified insights we have picked up from others (understanding) and the effect of our behaviour on those around us (action). It is a more emotionally driven process of becoming a better leader; of actually changing the way others see you and how you see yourself (for example, by seeking feedback from those around you).
The research highlighted the importance of formal role changes as a route to self-discovery, while several respondents talked about the key role of personal networks developed during LBS programmes in helping them rethink their identities. One respondent noted: “What I didn’t expect [of doing a formal programme] was the relationships that you form there. I formed a very strong bond – they learned a lot from me and vice versa. [It was] an incredibly strong supplement to the programme.”
“After the LBS Accelerated Development Programme I put a note on my laptop. ‘Failure is an option’.”
Experimentation, the third pathway, is about translating understanding and identity into action. Typically, this means adopting a more experimental approach in the workplace. Here, respondents highlighted a variety of different approaches to experimenting that they had engaged in. The most common was simply taking ideas they had been exposed to in a formal learning environment and trying them out in practice. Other respondents emphasised the utility of identity-based insights (for example, how to relate to others), while others cited learning to accept well-intentioned failure as an important insight. One observed: “I like to get things right in one go. After the LBS Accelerated Development Programme I put a note on my laptop. ‘Failure is an option’. I try to tell myself this.”
“These pathways of development are the heart of our UNIQ framework,” observes Professor Birkinshaw. “Of course, many people intuitively know that experimentation, sense-making and self-discovery are important, but by showing how all these pieces fit together, you can be much smarter about choosing which one to use, and when”.
Insights for individual leaders
The above examples highlight the range of different ways in which executives develop and learn. The value of the UNIQ framework lies in the insight that individuals can benefit by stepping back from their own development efforts and considering whether they are over-emphasising certain pathways and neglecting others.
For the individual, this requires taking responsibility for your own development. This means reflecting on the activities and pathways described here. Everyone has blind spots, so it is common to unconsciously gravitate to certain styles of learning and development in preference to others. By taking account of these insights, the individual can identify development pathways they may be neglecting. These are the ones to consciously work on as they will complement the activities already being addressed through habit.
Insights for organisations
A key insight from the study is that investing in personal development in this multi-faceted way correlates directly with better business outcomes, as reported by respondents. It is easy to assume that executive education is only useful when it leads directly to people acting differently when they return to work; this research suggests that helping managers to sharpen their identity through self-discovery is also invaluable as an activity in its own right.
Another important insight is that organisations go through phases of change whereby certain types of intervention are likely to be more useful than others at a given point in time. For example, an organisation in a turnaround situation may need a programme that emphasises action-taking, whereas one that is performing well but looking for new ideas may derive greater benefit from a programme focusing on identity or understanding.
So, the 70/20/10 principle is still useful but not very accurate. And while a 40/40/20 ratio is nearer the mark, it doesn’t advance our understanding of how learning takes place. Executive development is as much about the pathways between understanding, identity and action as it is about those activities per se. In particular, the processes of self-discovery and experimenting are central to effective development, and organisations are strongly advised to bear this in mind when seeking to get the most out of the people running their businesses.