Engineering Experience

Just over 15 years ago I had the pleasure of meeting with Amin Rajan, the co-author of a research report entitled ‘Leading People’.   The report was the output from a study that was conducted in 400 companies within London’s square mile.

The summary of the report reinforced my own experiences of, and about, leadership.  Those findings have survived ‘the test of time’ and have, alongside repeated findings in other surveys and research, underpinned my approach to developing people and helping them to explore the ‘art of the possible’ rather than allowing themselves to be constrained by others, and their own: thinking, behaviour and false beliefs about what they can achieve.

Consequently, since Odyssey launched in 2002, the work we undertake has one fundamental keystone:

‘What can we do, now, to support the people we are working with, to be ‘the best at what they do today, and, prepare them for even more challenging tomorrows’?

The key findings in the report were that when successful people reflect on what has contributed to their success, five key factors surface with high frequency:

1) Childhood events that forced them to often prematurely rely on their own resources, giving them the will to get on and succeed despite the odds, and, having supportive, inspirational role models

2) An accelerated development of their emotional intelligence – building self-awareness and understanding their own strengths and limitations and learning how to work best with other people

3) Hands-on experiences that took them significantly outside of their comfort zones and taught them new skills and processes

4) Having the ‘right’ personal mentors

All ‘Key Formative Learning Experiences’ that helped to shape the leadership styles, approaches, integrity and ethos of the people interviewed.

The final factor was:

5) To ‘just be there’!

Spotting opportunities in their environment and matching their physical, intellectual, emotional and political resources to the needs of the organisation at those crucial moments in time.  These are moments in time that helped accelerate their careers and often resulted in further formative, or what are sometimes referred to as, ‘defining experiences’.

At Odyssey our driving purpose is to create and facilitate these types of experience

It is at the heart of everything we do.  How can we create development interventions that have the same fundamental life or career defining and sustainable impact on peoples’ development?

‘Defining experiences’ are most often ones that have one or more of the following attributes, sometimes all three. They are either physically challenging, intellectually stimulating or emotionally immersive.  For a lot of people, the types of experience we have tend to be weighted in favour of one primary dimension;

mage diagram table

Singular events in people’s lives that at a personal level stretch us physically, intellectually and emotionally – key dimensions for learning and change. Events that due to the level of introspection they result in, can cause a fundamental shift in our values systems, attitudes and life perspectives – resulting in increased self-awareness, heightened emotional intelligence, changes in attitude and the development or adaptation of our behaviour.

So why is this important?

Even though it’s increasingly being debunked as an accurate guideline for how different types of learning activity should be balanced in organisations, there is an increasing reliance on the 70:20:10 model: a framework for thinking about the development of our workforce, and especially when thinking about our leader managers:

70% of learning through on-the-job activities and incremental work place experiences

20% of learning through coaching and mentoring

10% of learning through formal training and development programmes

Accepting that there is a broad adoption of this model, (even though it is over 30 year’s old and the ‘zeitgeist’ may no longer be relevant!) some critical risks exist, that seem to be overlooked when it is being discussed and/or implemented, (regardless of whether you are a 70:20:10 or a 40:30:30) Just a few of these are:

  1. The assumption that accurate and good quality learning exists in the experiences people are having in the ‘70’.

There is often and little or no formal process to ensure learning is being consciously gained from peoples’ day to day work. There is an assumption that the habits and practices developed through peoples’ experience are the right ones – often confusing ‘good enough’ with ‘right or best’; plus, we tend to exaggerate our own capabilities when work experiences are positive (ignoring whether there might have been better ways of doing things), and blaming others (rather than looking at ourselves) when they are less positive – ‘the halos and horns’ syndrome – our experience is highly contaminated by the lenses through which we view it; other people’s views and interpretation of our experiences (esp. our bosses and peers) also tend to be coloured by how socially engaged they are with us!

Without formal mechanisms to objectively advance learning, the ‘70’ it has incredibly limited use as a development tool other than to help people survive within their jobs on a day-to-day basis.

  1. The assumption that those acting as mentors or coaches, the ‘20’, have the capability and right skills profile to act in such a manner.

We mistakenly attribute new and well-honed skills to people as they rise through an organisation’s hierarchy. We are all aware of how many incredibly mediocre leaders/managers there are in middle and sometimes senior level positions – we only have to look at the plethora of engagement data to see statistical evidence of this. The individuals might be technically expert, which is often the cause of their rise, but their people skills, broader knowledge, role modelling and skill sets are often ‘just not good enough’ for them to formally act as key developers of the people around them.

Ensure your mentors and coaches have the skills, that they are not just attributed due to status. Also ensure they have a genuine willingness to perform such roles.

  1. What is not spoken about often, is the importance of what the 10% should look like, or consist of.

A significant issue with the ‘10’ is something I refer to as ‘sweet shop syndrome’.   When an organisations training participants rate a programme highly, there is often an assumption that the quality and volume of learning is also high, and ‘right’. This can act as a blocker to L&D professionals ensuring that the ‘sweet’ has the right ‘nutritional balance’, or, that they are shopping in the right ‘sweet shop’!

If sustained shifts in behaviour, attitudes, thinking and self-awareness come from having defining experiences (and we want that type of development for our people), how can we leverage this in the corporate world rather than just putting people ‘though a programme’ that they might love, but gain no sustained benefit from? Also, and critically, how do we ‘engineer’ all three dimensions of ‘stretch’ referred to earlier?

Part of the answer is to ensure that the 10% is fully bespoke to your operational and cultural needs and pitched appropriately for each group from the target audience. At Odyssey this is something does for all our clients. Through high quality research, design and facilitation, we are able to build and deliver programmes that are both intellectually and emotionally stretching.


To build in the 3rd dimension, to have even greater and deeper impact needs a little something extra:

That ‘something’ is to put people into a physically challenging and different classroom environment and ensure well designed high quality learning experiences are engineered – providing structured development that engages with all learning styles: whether Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic.

These development experiences will, if built correctly and facilitated expertly, challenge at a fundamental level peoples’ beliefs about who they are, how they work and how they interact with others.

At Odyssey we have now scouted, located, and worked in an incredibly rich learning environment in which we can make this happen; whether you want to focus on leadership and talent development, personal effectiveness, culture or environmental impact. Whether for graduate, leadership or talent development interventions, it is a location in which people can be taken significantly outside their comfort zones and provided with fully immersive development experiences that will accelerate personal change, act as a powerful motivation and engagement tool, and, influence their behaviour and thinking for years to come.

The core process for creating these types of experience is:

  • Establishing a baseline for knowledge & understanding, and personal insights and information, about whatever concept or model we are going to be working on, through facilitator inputs, diagnostics and discussion
  • Creating the right experiential activities that bring to life the models and concepts ‘in practice’
  • Consolidating the experience through reflection, discussion and personal coaching to anchor the learning and how it can be applied ‘tomorrow’ in the work place
  • Supporting the experience with either individual or group follow-up coaching sessions

To see the type of experience Odyssey can create for you click here.