Imperial College London, Imperial College Business School

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ImpactLab is an approach to leadership development that goes way beyond the classroom, with cross-disciplinary, experiential learning that challenges leaders to unpack current learned thinking and behavior and embrace bold, new ideas.

Call to Action

The Imperial College Business School, upon reflecting on its unique position within Imperial College (a science, technology, engineering, and medicine university), the advances in pedagogy for adult learning, and what companies need for their learning and development initiatives, deteremined that three specific challenges needed to be addressed:

  • Content: How to make business future-proof?
  • ROI on learning: What is the measurable outcome?
  • How can organizations develop behavior and not just knowledge of their people?

To take on these challenges, the ImpactLab™ follows a scientific approach of setting up a hypothesis, testing it in a safe environment, and learning from the results. The unique access to experimental learning environments through the Imperial College’s facilities provide an opportunity to take executive education into a different realm.

In the ImpactLab environments, making mistakes creates a way of facilitating the discovery of a solution, which is very often difficult to implement in a business environment where blame cultures are predominant and hold organizations back from their capacity to innovate and try new approaches. The ability to reflect actively on decisions and behaviors within simulated, experiential environments supports the codification of learning for both the organization and the individuals.

The labs offer a psychologically safe space to test out new ideas and get new behavior in participants’ muscle memory. Changing behavior is not an intellectual activity but is based on reflection and repeatedly using such new behaviors until they are embedded.

Innovation Description

ImpactLab is a unique approach to leadership development. It goes beyond the classroom with cross-disciplinary, experiential learning that challenges leaders to unpack current learned thinking and behavior, and to instead embrace bold, new ideas. It uses a unique blend of science, technology, design, and the performing arts, with a focus on tangible outcomes for the organization and its leaders.

Existing experiential learning spaces at Imperial College (such as the Carbon Capture Lab in chemical engineering, the performance simulator in the Enterprise Lab, and the flight simulator in aeronautics) are used to deliver situational and experimental learning. Unfamiliarity with the environment creates a helpful situation for participants to become aware of how uncertainty, time constraints, and selective information impacts their decision-making, physical condition (heartbeat, stress, etc.), and aptitude for handling risk.

The ImpactLab relies on learning by analogy to help leaders become more active and to get their buy-in for the solution-finding process. A lab sequence is composed of a 30-minute briefing, one session of one to two hours in the lab, followed by one hour of feedback.

For example, work in the Carbon Capture lab is focused on decision-making under stress. Following an introduction, leaders are divided into two teams and given a 30-minute task of transporting carbon across the North Sea.

Teams are encouraged to make decisions quickly and evaluate the practical and financial risks involved at each stage of the journey between the power station and the sea-based operating platform. Teams then gather to discuss their experience and the lessons that could be applied to their own working environments.


The ImpactLab approach has increased value to organizations and leaders because it challenges relevant history, context, and past experience. It converts stimulating learning into real business value by paying attention to how learning will be applied to the organization and makes it last.

Client feedback endorses the approach as well. VanDyck Silveira, of FT IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance, said, “The challenging task and real-life labratory setting were effective in getting us to think on our feet and make decisions under pressure—skills which are essential in the fast-paced world of business.”

Another participant, Sandra Kinmont of Unilever, said, “The unfamiliar environment of the Carbon Capture Lab really challenged us to come up with different ways of working and reminded us of how building trust is at the heart of strong, integrated team work and creative problem-solving.”

The ability to challenge leaders in a safe environment and advance their understanding of different, often innovative approaches to solving problems creates a lasting impression. As an approach, it aligns with significant evidence in learning theory that stipulates that experiential learning, coupled with structured reflection and an ability to apply such learning, creates lasting changes in knowledge and behavior.

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