Lessons from Big Science

CERNLargeHadronColliderA comment piece in a recent edition of the economist looked at lessons that the rest of the world can take from the collaborative projects in Big Science. Big Science is things like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN at which the existence of the famous Higgs Particle was demonstrated to world wide interest.

The Economist author took away two interesting lessons from this article:

  • Postpone decisions until the latest possible time.
  • Challenge all assumptions and assertions — the only limitation is that imposed by fundamental physics.

These have a powerful message for the way we do change.

Making decisions at the right time

Big Science (by definition) costs big money, most of it public money that needs to be accounted for and spent wisely. Once a decision is made then the money is committed and the pressure to get it right first time is immense. The pressure in a change programme to use resources effectively and (because of the people aspects) to get it right first time are just as high. The idea of thinking about each decision and when to make it is very powerful and, surprisingly, rarely discussed in change methods (or project and programme methods either).
As a general management technique, decision making is often taken for granted. In a change methodology we usually make sure we are managing information for the purpose of making decisions and managing risk for decision making; but we rarely discuss what decisions should be made and when.

The starting point for any good decision is the criteria that needs to be applied to the decision to determine if it is a good one. How many decisions have you made where the criteria to test the answer were used and applied? Similarly, who has sat down and listed all the issues, risks, and assumptions about a decision so that they can be individually assessed and if necessary worked on prior to the decision being made. Or do you turn up in a room with (hopefully) enough expertise and just make the decision come what may.

I propose that a plan is drawn up of the key decisions that need to be made for a change with the latest date for the decision shown. For each decision we have information about who is going to be accountable for it (essentially make the decision), what information they need, what are the criteria for a good decision. Then with careful consideration we can plan to make critical resource committing decisions at the last point so that we keep all of our options open for as long as possible.

Challenge assumptions

It is very hard as a change manager coming from within the organisation to challenge the assumptions about the way we do things around here. One of the key characteristics of a good change manager is that they are fully familiar with how things are done.

In a big science project each of the scientists and engineers has the advantage that they are employed by and accountable to their home institution; not the big science project. Hence they will be encouraged to challenge assumptions with impunity. The author of the Economist piece describes a commercial engineer who was amazed and frustrated by the level of challenge. Specifically he was challenged to reduce the size of a component which he had just stated was as small as possible. To his amazement, the challenge prompted thinking that reduced the size by a fifth.

Challenging assumptions and being innovative about potential solutions is a good discipline which can help make change more effective and efficient. This will have a real impact as organisations need to do more change to survive but do it with less resources. The practical consequence is that change managers need to have some reflective thinking and design time early in the change project to do this challenging and seeking alternative solutions. It can be hard to create and defend this ‘quiet’ time as senior managers push to start projects and deliver quick wins. However, if coupled with reflective review time after doing things the two could re-enforce each other.


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