Ideas for Leaders #022

Leading Complex Projects through Collaboration

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Key Concept

Pooling the ideas, resources, commitment and efforts of many is more effective than relying on the few best individuals in an organization. Here, the example of CERN and their successful collaborative model of project management is used to illustrate the ways to lead through collaboration and harmony - collaborative leadership lessons from CERN: the world’s largest physics experiment.

Idea Summary

Collaboration has turned traditional leadership and project management on its head in recent years. In this Idea we examine how leaders and managers can benefit from a collaborative model for implementing complex projects in organizations.

In traditional project management, each phase of the project is dealt with thoroughly before moving to the next. Collaboration, however, works differently. To illustrate this, an analysis of the experience at CERN - the European nuclear research centre in Geneva - can be greatly informative. CERN worked together to manage the world’s largest ever physics experiment over almost 20 years.

Built at CERN, the ATLAS detector is the largest, most complex scientific device ever built, approximately half the size of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and weighs around 7,000 tonnes (as much as the Eiffel Tower). Building it took the collaboration of 169 research institutions and national agencies from 37 countries and 2,500 scientists almost 20 years to imagine, design, fund, build, install and go operational with the ATLAS detector.

Traditional project management techniques were not appropriate for building such a unique and complex instrument, the technology for which did not yet exist. The ATLAS management team’s leadership style was more about stewardship - encouraging participation and ideas rather than dictating and directing project evolution.

Fundamentally, participants and project coordinators accepted that the collective wisdom of the collaboration was far greater than that of any one individual. Moreover, ATLAS management always made room for the ‘losing’ side. Those scientists whose solutions were not retained were always offered opportunities to contribute to the chosen solution.

Business Application

One CERN collaboration technique was regular meetings, open to all. It is estimated that there were over 3,000 meetings, all of which facilitated openness and knowledge sharing. In addition, all recorded contributions were made available to anyone to download ahead of time.

For businesses undertaking complex projects this study of CERN can propose the following golden rule, emerging from the evolution of the ATLAS case: Don’t rush decision making. A highly uncertain technological environment requires careful risk management. The resource coordinator at ATLAS, Markus Nordberg, acknowledged that “yes, the process is slow and consensus-driven. The whole point, however, is that you leave the decision to the last possible moment, thereby reducing uncertainty.”

The key to the ATLAS collaboration was the capacity of all involved to work for one another and go beyond personal recognition. For example, authority came out of respect from peers and was never used to coerce. Leadership meant stewardship. These are important lessons that businesses can apply to managing projects with high uncertainty, complexity and risk.

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Idea conceived

  • 2009

Idea posted

  • February 2013

DOI number



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