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Why 70/20/10 learning doesn’t work as well as it could

The 70/20/10 Theory

In any talent management discussion, it doesn’t take long for someone to invoke the 70-20-10 theory. 
The theory is that to develop leaders and managers, their learning will come from three sources: their work (70 percent), their peers, relationships and exposure to role models (20 percent) and formal training/coursework (10 percent).
The model was created in the 1980’s by three researchers and authors at the Center for Creative Leadership and emerged from 30 years of CCL research. The theory has stood the test of time in part because of its research foundation but, more importantly, because it resonates with how most of us think we’ve learned to lead.
How it is put into practice, however, is a different story.

Adults Don't Learn by Doing

When we assume that adults learn by doing—learn solely through experience—we are missing the point. Adults don’t learn by doing, they learn by reflecting on the doing. Unless leaders pause to reflect on what happened and why, they run the risk of making the same mistake again in the future—or being unable to replicate a success.

The original researchers highlighted the importance of hands-on experience as the foundation for dialogue with more experienced leaders and immediate feedback on performance.

As the pace of work accelerates and the rate of business system and organizational change amplifies, what often gets lost is the pause to reflect. Carving out time to step back and see an experience from a different perspective takes time and attention. Even group opportunities for reflection and learning (for example, After Action Reviews) are postponed because of the pressing demands of daily work.
If your goal is to develop yourself and your organization’s leaders through experience, make it an explicit activity with three simple steps:
  1. Find a cadence that works for you to pause and consider “how” you are leading—whether it is a project or a team or a business. Find a habit that reinforces reflection: a walk? Blocked time on your calendar? A walk with a “sounding board” peer?

  2. Be intentional about taking on new experiences and activities—but pay attention to what you want to learn and are gaining from the experience.

  3. Ask for feedback - and listen carefully. Don’t be too self-critical of your missteps: you’ll miss important insights.


Accelerate performance

Business simulations are an extraordinary laboratory for practicing these skills:

  • The cycles of decision-making impose “pause points” for reflection.
  • The immediate feedback of time-compressed business results helps leaders understand cause and effect.
  • The experience offers a practice ground for paying attention to how we learn.


So, when the 10% of 70/20/10 includes a business simulation, it has a disproportionate benefit. A simulation is a unique accelerator for the 70% of learning that comes from experience.  For many leaders, the single greatest key to accelerating performance is learning how to learn. 

See a Simulation Example


Amanda Young HIckman co-founded Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.