Viability Labs—a science experiment or a leadership development best practice?


If you are familiar with our six best practices of leadership development, you may recall that leader development experiences which leverage a blend of learning approaches are very impactful. Further, those that embed action learning and enable the leader to really engage in the development experience facilitate the transfer of learning from the experience to the job.  In this type of development approach, the leader is not the only beneficiary. The companies who advocate and promote such learning experiences allow themselves an opportunity to develop, test, and implement innovative business concepts while also testing and developing their leaders.  How cool is that!

Cisco Systems, a technology leader headquartered in San Jose, California, does this very well through a leader development approach called viability labs.  During our IMPACT 2010 Conference next month in St Petersburg, Florida, Annmarie Neal, chief talent officer and vice president of Cisco System’s Center for Collaborative Leadership, will share how this concept is leveraged at Cisco. Viability labs is a decidedly business-centric approach to building Cisco’s pipeline of next generation leaders and improving business results. Few would question the critical importance of innovation for long-term business success. If a company is to remain competitive and viable in the evolving world market, it must have a healthy pipeline of new business ideas and models and innovative 21st century leaders to execute on those ideas.

One of the hallmarks of true business leadership is the ability to identify and prioritize good ideas, determine business objectives, and then take them to market in a timely, cost effective way. To better prepare its leaders for this role – and to simultaneously address significant business challenges and opportunities, viability labs has become an integral ingredient in Cisco’s leadership development strategy.  This groundbreaking development approach is a true competitive advantage for all who implement it successfully. In fact, as Annmarie recently shared with us, the action learning projects that result from the viability labs have the potential of creating $1 billion in potential revenue generation or cost-savings at Cisco. 

My blog last week indicated that a critical leader competency for the 21st century is innovation. And there’s no denying that innovation is fueled when leaders are given the opportunity to develop, test, shape and re-shape their ideas in a risk-free learning environment such as these viability or learning labs.  In other words:

Develop Vision + Practice Execution = Quantifiable Business Success

This formula is not found in the science lab but rather in the leadership development strategies of the most successful organizations. Join us next month at IMPACT 2010 to learn directly from AnnMarie about how Cisco leverages this leadership development experience to grow their leaders’ skills, build organizational capability, and drive business results. 

Do your leaders have an opportunity for the structured, innovative application of learning?  What kinds of experiential learning activities does your company use?  Please write to me at and share the leader development approach at your organization that sets you apart from the rest.   

Andrea Derler

Andrea Derler, Ph.D., joined Bersin by Deloitte in March 2015 and leads the Leadership & Succession Management research practice. She brings international work experience as leadership trainer & coach and a solid academic background to this role. Prior to joining Bersin, she collaborated closely with organizations in the USA as well as Europe in order to pursue practice-oriented leadership research. Andrea studied international management, organizational culture and integral leadership and facilitated leadership development efforts in a variety of industries. She holds a doctoral degree in Economics (Leadership & Organization), and a Master’s degree in Philosophy. Her work about leaders’ Ideal Employee recently received wide-spread media attention in Europe and was published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal

Leave a Reply