Last year, scientists hoped that the world’s largest ever science experiment—the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project—would start to answer fundamental questions about the Big Bang, matter and the nature of our universe. Unfortunately, the 27km-long particle accelerator only worked for 10 days before a serious fault meant that it had to be switched off for repairs for more than a year; it’s due to be operational again in the coming weeks.
From a business academic’s point of view, however, the LHC project is already a fascinating case study. Examining the way in which 169 countries, 37 funding institutions and 2,500 scientists worked together to build ATLAS, one of four particle detectors within LHC, gives us an insight into the benefits and characteristic of successful leadership by collaboration.
Building ATLAS—an incredibly sensitive and accurate machine half the size of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and as heavy as the Eiffel Tower—was undoubtedly a project on a huge scale. The traditional view of such enormous initiatives is that they are led by charismatic and authoritative leaders who have full control of all aspects of a project throughout its life cycle. In many cases this is still the reality, but there is a growing recognition that pooling the ideas, resources, commitment and efforts of many surpasses what can be achieved by any one individual.
The research institutes and funding agencies behind ATLAS primarily financed their own national scientists. If any members of the collaboration walked away from the project, their funds went with them. Another challenge was that all of the scientists involved had big reputations and were treated as stars by their institutions. Together, this meant that collaboration was not a given—it had to be built.
Rather than taking a confrontational approach, members of the collaboration continued talking through difficult areas until a consensus was reached. One result was a loss of efficiency in both costs and processes, but this was less important than making decisions that did not jeopardize the functioning of the collaboration and the machine.
The ATLAS management team behaved as stewards rather than top-down leaders; their role was to channel the creativity of the scientists. Outsiders watching the scientists’ interactions might think that they spent most of their time in meetings. The reality was that they were constantly working together to call on their differing skills when developing the solutions.
One of the keys to this collaboration was the openness of all documentation and meetings. “Competing” teams could join debates, thus both gaining knowledge that they could use in developing their own solutions, and offering valuable feedback to others. This approach improved the shared knowledge of the group as a whole while creating camaraderie.
A golden rule in the evolution of the project was “don’t rush decision making”. Why? To manage risk. The highly uncertain technological environment required careful risk management. Traditionally, project managers attempt to identify all future risks the project may face and look at measures to reduce or eliminate them while the project is still at design stage. This approach is based on the logic that the future can be predicted with some certainty and that unforeseen events are the exception rather than the norm.
However, the ATLAS team took an entirely different tack: They avoided risk by waiting until the last possible moment to make decisions. This slowed the process, but allowed collaborators to avoid risk rather than to fix it after the fact.
As the switch gets turned back on, the world will be watching to see just how much knowledge can be gleaned through the power of this unprecedented scientific collaboration.
Donald A. Marchand is professor of strategy execution and information management at IMD, a business school in Lausanne, Switzerland. This article is based on a case study by Marchand and research associate Philippe Margery. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org