As a business leader, imagine trying to manage more than 7000 scientists from 85 countries around the world - with their own languages, cultures, and expertise - on a 20-year collaboration to create the most complex system ever built.
Now imagine the goal is to recreate the conditions a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. And none of the experts on your team will get personal credit for changing our fundamental understanding of the universe. And oh, by the way, you don't have control of anyone's paycheck.
It might seem like an impossible management situation. But that is exactly what is going on at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.
The LHC has garnered some attention to date: an explosion last September delayed the experiments for a year, myths of black holes still plague the program, and the just-released movie Angels and Demons features a fictitious "anti-matter bomb" from CERN. But these issues distract us from the real story.
Beyond the atom-smashing, business leaders have special reason to examine what is going on in Geneva. CERN's remarkable leadership and culture is what makes their extraordinary advancements possible. And most importantly, we all can apply these same lessons to stimulate innovation in our own organizations, no matter how big or how small.
The Power of Collective Ownership
I visited CERN twice last year, and it is a wonder to behold: a 27-km long circular tunnel and four enormous detectors, buried 100 meters underground. One of the four experiments, called ATLAS, weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower, has about 20 million components, uses 3000km of cables and 1000km of piping, and requires some 5 million lines of computing code to run.
You might assume a project this massive requires top-down, authoritative leadership.
But, there are no directors. No CEOs or presidents. No corner offices. (In fact, the main building is cylindrical, with every office the same size.) Symbolically, the leader of each experiment is called the "spokesperson," and a "resource coordinator" tracks the allocation of money and people.
LHC leaders create the framework for people to share and contribute. Gathering spaces throughout CERN serve as giant "water coolers" for ideas to be shared. Different perspectives are valued, and decisions are made with input from everyone. How does this happen? With week-long summits, held three to four times a year; thousands of lesser meetings, which are optional and open to the collaborators; and an online system that allows participants to browse agendas and watch presentations remotely.
To a fast-paced corporate executive, this may sound like overkill, but the investment up front eliminates costly issues that can surface later. Everyone feels ownership and commitment from the beginning.
The entire community at CERN operates with a profound sense of trust that comes from a mutual "code of ethics." Everyone is expected to work hard and share.
Because their community is close-knit and their most valuable currency is reputation, experimental physicists around the world know who contributes. Conversely, the few who have been too proprietary with their ideas have been ostracized. It's like a crowd-sourced performance review.
Notably, CERN promotes the "open access" movement in scientific publishing; anyone can access the results, which are posted to the CERN library site.
People don't fail, experiments do. At CERN, failure is a valuable learning opportunity, not a cause to point fingers. Remarkably, after an explosion last September delayed experiments for a year, no one was fired.
It may seem that on a project of such great scale, there is no room for taking risks. But in truth, the project evolves through a natural process of experimentation and peer review.
For example, the ATLAS experiment and its counterpart, CMS, both needed to make a very fundamental design choice in the early 1990's: what technology to use for the magnets. But they did not make a decision, start building it, and hope for the best fifteen years later. Failure at that level would definitely be disastrous. Instead, each experiment provided budget for two or three teams to prototype different technologies in parallel. After numerous iterations, CMS and ATLAS made their final and very different bets based on years of designing, building, testing - and, yes, sometimes failing.
Although corporate executives do not always have the luxury to undertake multiple major developments in parallel, leaders can encourage a culture of small experiments and risk-taking early in the development process. Ultimately, this up-front investment begets a better end product - and much less risk of a bigger failure later.
The scientists at CERN are unrelentingly dedicated to a singular goal.
But surprisingly, because so many have contributed, it would be very difficult for anyone on the team to win the Nobel Prize. Regardless, thousands of experts manage to keep their egos in check and collaborate. They can do so because they share a common yardstick for all decisions: what is the best for the physics?
In business, this means having an ambitious yet attainable vision for the organization that is embraced the grassroots and embodied by the leadership.
Of course, egos at CERN do clash. And there is spirited competition between ATLAS and CMS to be the first to discover the "Higgs particle." But the leaders cleverly avoid wasting energy on trying to control everything; they instead focus on nurturing the right environment for innovation.
As I toured CERN, I was struck by the scale and complexity of their undertaking. But I was also struck by how simple, yet revolutionary, their approach to innovation seems.
Simple enough that we could all try it.
Thank you to Markus Nordberg, Robert Cousins, and George Brandenburg, who contributed to this column. This article first ran on Businessweek.com.