Case Study

The Atlas and LHC collaborations at CERN: Exploring matter in the universe

26 pages
April 2009
Reference: IMD-3-2015

Leading great human achievements. The CERN Atlas Project in high energy particle physics, where human aspirations, values and principles are ambitious, financial resources are in the billions, and human collaboration on a global scale must be developed to successfully pool ideas, share learning and innovation, and mobilize thousands of people over many years to execute these initiatives successfully. The ATLAS particle detector is one of the largest, most complex scientific devices ever built. Its evolution from early ideas, through conception and planning to final assembly covers leading edge science, engineering and IT to a scale never before achieved. No traditional project management or leadership techniques could ever have seen through the successful completion of the world’s largest scientific machine ever built. The scale and scope of the collaboration largely outside CERN for pooling resources worldwide challenges traditional views of leadership, project management and collaboration in science and industry. How did 169 institutions and national agencies from 37 countries agree to fund and develop ATLAS? How could a group of 2,500 scientists and engineers, spread all over the world, collaborate over such a long time span? What lessons are there to be learned for leaders and project managers in terms of 1) developing a common vision and strong belief system; 2) engaging thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians and hundreds of suppliers; 3) enabling these people from dozens of countries and cultural backgrounds to work together; 4) accomplishing such successful results on such a large scale; 5) leading without formal authority; 6) earning credibility and legitimacy through consensus building.

Learning Objective

Understand how “collaboration on scale” works. Evaluate how people “lead” and “manage” a large scale project that is unique with high levels of uncertainty and risk. Focus on the decision-making challenges and working principles of collaboration from idea to operational reality.

Collaboration, Project Management, Scientific Research
Field Research
© 2009
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