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Strategizing Practices from the Outliers:

Enabling “Big Bang” Innovations

Do you ever wonder what it was like way back when, at the origins of the universe?

April 8, 2013

By recreating the conditions that emerged in the first few months after the Big Bang, physicists at CERN can journey to the beginning of time and space where they probe the genesis of energy and the development of matter, the advent of life itself. Members of IMD's Corporate Learning Network (CLN) had the opportunity to visit the ATLAS, one of the colossal particle detectors at CERN that acts like a camera, recording the interaction between particles just as they occurred way back when, at the birth of the universe.

The visit to CERN was part of a joint event organized by the CLN and the Strategic Management Society. Over 200 people convened to discuss the quirks, triumphs, evolution and dissolution of outlier organizations and the lessons they provide for achieving and sustaining innovation. The lineup of key speakers featured renowned experts on maverick teams and big bang originality, including IMD Professors Bill Fischer, Stuart Read, Pasha Mahmood and Howard Yu, Berkeley Haas School of Business Professor Henry Chesborough and Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen.

While the main focus was on innovation in business, CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research located on the outskirts of Geneva, hosted the first day of the event and so allowed a glimpse into the workings of some of the most pioneering scientific innovation in the world.

CERN has an illustrious history of trail blazing, which includes the invention of the World Wide Web no less and the discovery of the positron, the electron's anti-matter counterpart used in positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, the 3D medical imaging that detects cancers and other disorders. The management practices that foster such groundbreaking results provided intriguing insights for managing innovation in business.

Days before the IMD-SMS event, scientists at CERN confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson or sub-particle, named after Peter Higgs who developed the theory of the sub-particle in 1964. The findings have been hailed as "monumental". The Higgs boson has been dubbed the "God particle" because of its close connection with the Higgs field. Sergio Bertolucci, Director for Research and Scientific Computing, described the Higgs filed as the "non-interacting ether" which endowed massless particles with mass immediately after the Big Bang.

CERN scientists acted as guides, leading small groups of conference delegates 100 meters underground to view the 7000 ton ATLAS, one of six detectors designed to observe the myriad result of colliding protons. The protons are extracted form hydrogen gas and sent hurtling along the Large Hadron Collidor that runs through a 27 km long circular tunnel beneath the Franco-Swiss border. Two accelerated proton beams are sent crashing against one another and the ATLAS acts as a camera, recording the events in the aftermath of those collisions. The ATLAS was one of the crucial components in the confirmation of the Higgs boson.

Millions of data points are gathered from the collisions and sent to a network of scientists around the world for analysis. This highly collaborative approach is one of the keys to CERN's success. In addition to a broad external network, the internal team of approximately 3000 scientists is characterized by its diversity. "CERN unites people from different countries and cultures," Bertolucci said. It is not uncommon to find "Pakistani scientists working with Indian scientists, Americans with Iranians and even Italians with… Italians."

A range of perspectives are present in the diverse teams that are given an unusual degree of freedom and responsibility. CERN scientists eschew traditional hierarchies. "What you'll see here" said Bertolucci, "are people working very hard, doing amazingly complex things without any apparent formal organization or structure." Expert individuals play complementary roles and together they produce research outputs with team authorship. Contrary to mainstream practices in academia particularly in the humanities and social sciences, single authorship is unheard of at CERN where authors on any given paper number in the hundreds and sometimes thousands.

One final lesson for business managers to reflect on is the intense focus of CERN's teams on a common and very precise goal. Proof of the Higgs boson is an example of such an objective that the 3000 scientists all aimed for and hit.

Learn more about the collaboration for this event.

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