Why 70/20/10 doesn’t work!

The 70/20/10 model is widely accepted as the way most development should be constructed in organisations today.  For those of you not familiar with it, in essence the framework says effective learning is a combination of:-


  • 70% of learning completed done on the job and hands on experience e.g. making decisions, dealing with challenges etc. and then immediately receiving feedback from others
  • 20% of learning done through a variety of activities including coaching, mentoring and interaction with peers once again receiving feedback from others
  • 10% of learning was achieved from traditional face to face, instructor or facilitator led events


On the face of it, it seems to make perfect sense; less time out of the business on training courses and more time learning whilst also completing the job.  It taps into that old adage you only really learn how to do something when you actually start doing it.


However, what we’ve found is this approach simply doesn’t work when organisations try and put it into practice!


We learnt this lesson the hard way, as a few years ago we designed a modular programme in partnership with one of our clients based on the 70 / 20 /10 principles.  There were some face to face workshops to upskill the participants, but then the main focus was on supporting the learners outside the classroom to apply the new skills by learning on the job learning, with support and feedback from line managers and others in the business.


Initially at least the programme was a huge success.  However as time passed, whilst the content of the programme was still getting rave reviews, it wasn’t having the long term sustained impact it should have within the business.   The support, opportunities and feedback that people had been so committed to at the outset was patchy at best and in most cases wasn’t happening at all. The most common comment from participants attending the programme was, ‘my manager has been on this, but doesn’t demonstrate any of it’.


This might sound quite familiar and is one of the main reasons why organisations end up repeating development interventions, albeit in a different guise every 3 – 4 years, (which in itself tells you something about how successful 70 / 20 / 10 is!)


So what went wrong with our client’s programme?  Why doesn’t 70/ 20 /10 work?


Here’s a non-work example that brilliantly illustrates 70 / 20 /10 in practice.   When you learn to drive a car – a certain amount of your time will be spent reading the Highway Code and getting to know what all the different rules of the road are.  You also need to spend time passing your theory test and understanding the fundamentals of how to drive, i.e. how to change gear etc.  But 70% of learning to drive a car is spent actually driving, with a qualified driver / instructor helping you to master the necessary skills.


It’s fair to say using this analogy, there are some fundamental things you need in order to be successful, namely a car, a copy of the Highway Code, a qualified ‘instructor’ to show you what to do (of course that instructor, could be a member of the family, who knows how to drive & has previously passed their test) and perhaps most importantly dedicated time to practice. Without these 4 vital ingredients learning how to drive becomes almost impossible.


Well it’s the same within organisations when someone is trying to learn a new skill, and this is where unconsciously most of them go wrong with the 70 / 20 /10 approach.  They lack one or more of the vital ingredients they need.


For example let’s look at learning how to be an effective leader.  Just as with learning how to drive, there are 4 key things that need to be in place:


  1. The right skills and knowledge to do the job – leaders need to be trained how to use a variety of leadership tools


  1. Processes and systems that enable, rather than hinder, the learner to apply the knowledge and skills learnt,  (e.g. giving them the skills to perform effective 1:1’s, but never making them accountable for actually holding them)


  1. Experts in the business who are able to support, develop and encourage the learner, whilst also role modelling what good looks like. (NB: The title of line manager alone does not make you an expert – one of the most common mistakes we see in organisations!)


  1. Quality time for the learner to be able to practice, experiment and make mistakes as they try to apply their new skills.


The 70/20/10 model assumes all of these elements are in place and embedded within the organisation, as it simply won’t work as a framework for development without them.  Remember 70% of the learning takes place ‘on the job’, just as 70 % of learning to drive takes place at the wheel.


With a handful of notable exceptions, most organisations only have one or two of these elements in place, but very rarely do they have all four.


So for example if they don’t have number 1 in place that’s like asking someone to learn to drive without the use of a car and similarly if they don’t have number 3 in place that’s like asking someone to pass their driving test with no help from a qualified expert.  Crazy right?


When we designed and delivered the programme for our client, we foolishly made the assumption all these things already existed.  We were providing the leadership tools & showing people how to use them (number 1).  However everyone involved, including us,  massively underestimated how time and resource heavy the on job training, support, mentoring and feedback would be; as well as not realising there was a real lack of expertise in the more senior management population to be the ‘qualified instructors’ the learners needed, (numbers 2, 3 &4!).  Not surprising then the programme ultimately didn’t affect the long term sustainable change it could have done.


So if you are an advocate of and use the 70/20/10 model, you really need to check and be confident that you have those four key elements embedded, to ensure any development you undertake hits the mark and delivers value for your business or organisation.


Trust us if it doesn’t – whilst the 70 / 20 /10 approach may sound great on paper, it will never work in practice!


Martin & Elizabeth 


  • Steph


    That is one of the best articles you’ve written.

    I could totally relate to it on so many levels.

    The 4 rules are valid medium and long term too – for the development advantages to be sustainable (which you mention) there must be continuity and support as the person grows.

    It mustn’t just be what happens in the months immediately after the leadership skills have been trained. Else no-ones really growing?

    November 10, 2016 at 6:59 pm

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