Is 70:20:10 the Simple Answer to Organisational Learning?

Wherever we go these days 70:20;10 is declared to be the accepted approach or its touted as best practice. To be fair, the 70:20;10 theory is based on solid research by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®). On the face of it, it makes a lot of sense as it advocates learning from experience, particularly learning from challenging experiences that take place on the job. Probably most of us would agree that such work-based experiences can be the most powerful and effective means of developing leaders at work.

A good theory it may be; however, it has been our experience over a number of years that making it work in practice is difficult.

Why? Because, simply put, people are different and complex.

We might agree that the value of experience is pretty universal, however it is pretty self evident that some people learn more from their experience than others. Take the example of two people working on the same challenging project. One of them emerges with change in attitude or behaviour and/or new skills and knowledge, and one of them doesn’t. What made the difference?

George Hallenbeck, Global Product Development Director at CCL, offers an answer in his recently published Guidebook for Managers entitled ‘Learning Agility’. Learning agility can be defined as:

The ability and willingness to learn from experience and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions.
– Swisher, Hallenbeck, Orr, Eichinger Lombardo & Capretta (2013)

Or to put it more simply learning agility means “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”
Agile learners are natural problem solvers and motivators. They quickly grasp new situations and instinctively know how to strike the right balance between risk and reward. Their experience helps them evaluate new business conditions, but it does not restrict their thinking.

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The American philosopher Eric Hoffer said “In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

So, offering employees stretch assignments to develop will work only to the extent that people are willing and able to embrace the challenge and to reflect and learn from it. According to Korn Ferry, it is estimated that just 15% of the global workforce are highly agile. There has already been some work correlating learning agility with company performance. Another 2014 Korn Ferry Institute study found companies with highly agile executives have 25% higher profit margins than their peer group.

A person could be someone who learns, but if he or she can’t read the environment fast enough and understand its patterns, he/she will not be able to apply the learning. He/she will also not be learning agile if there is a lack of ability to play and think about multiple ideas at the same time or if anxiety is a by-product of every new situation.

In her bestselling book, Dr. Carol Dweck proposed that peoples’ ideas about risk and effort stem from their basic mindset. People with a ‘growth mindset’ see effort as the path to mastery. They embrace challenges, are more resilient in the face of setbacks and learn from criticism. They believe if you are not born talented, you can develop it over time through hard work and persistence.

People with a ‘fixed mindset’ believe you either have talent or you don’t. Smart, talented people inherited their gifts and are predisposed to success; too bad if you’re not one of them. A fixed mindset will cause people to avoid challenges because they might fail, and give up more easily because trying too hard must mean you’re not smart. A fixed mindset causes us to feel threatened rather than inspired by the success of others.

These mindsets show up in children from a young age and are reinforced by their experiences. It’s not hard to guess which mindset will produce the more agile learner. In organisations, we believe that learning agility is the primary skill that differentiates high potentials from other talent.

We can’t always see the mindset, but according to CCL research there are clues to spotting the agile learner in these five facets of behaviour:

1. Innovating: They are not afraid to challenge the status quo.
2. Performing: They remain calm in the face of difficulty.
3. Reflecting: They take time to reflect on their experiences.
4. Risking: They purposefully put themselves in challenging situations.
5. Defending: They are open to learning and resist becoming defensive in the face of adversity.

We suspect that no matter where we currently are, most of us can learn to develop some of these behaviours further if we want to.

Understanding mindset and learning agility can help your organisation to more accurately identify these traits in your leaders employees and to make better talent decisions. As a bonus, we are nurturing the traits that enable leaders to get the most out of the 70:20:10 approach. In these changing times, the more leaders we have role modelling growth mindsets and learning effectively on the job, the better!

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