Galvanize Your Grand Challenge Leadership with a Design Studio

This Touchstone Event lights the fire.

Right at the start, the leaders who want to address a wicked problem need to gather its champions. You cannot do a Grand Challenge alone. There are simply too many moving parts among the multiple and diverse levels at which change must occur for one organization to grasp. You must bring together the right players and provoke them to collaborate around a Common Agenda. You need the transformative power of a Touchstone Event

The Design Studio is the initial gathering of leaders who will join in your amazing initiative. It creates an inspiring start that will invoke and channel passion into action. In this article I lay out the details.

Galvanize Your Grand Challenge Leadership with a Design Studio

Who to Invite?

The Design Studio has a tightly-defined target audience. Identify the organizations and activists that must be on board for your initiative to succeed. First, map out the ecosystem that your Grand Challenge lives in. By that, I mean all the organizations, sectors, and players that must change their behavior in order for your Grand Challenge to realize its aim. 

Then, reach out to the leadership of those organizations, ie. the CEOs, executive directors, or other decision-makers. You want people who can engage in strategic thinking and have the power to allocate resources. Of course, you must also include thought leaders who understand the nuances of your Grand Challenge, and activists who have the power to generate influence in your space. 

Let me illustrate this with an example from my work with the Inteleos Ultrasound Proficiency Grand Challenge. Their goal is to enable every user of medical ultrasound in the world to be proficient and so to protect the health of the people in their care. As a pilot project, the initiative chose to give entrepreneurial young women in Kenya ultrasound devices and training, with two aims: 1) to increase opportunities for women in nursing and midwifery; and 2) to lower Kenya’s maternal mortality rate. To execute that strategy, we needed to invite to the table aid organizations operating at regional, national, and global scale; healthcare organizations operating in finance, supply chain, technology, service delivery, and advisory capacities; and all the many members of the Kenyan Healthcare Federation.

To invite them, use the authority of the leader of the Backbone Organization (described in this article on the Collective Impact model). Reach out using this individual’s position of authority, which comes from their role and their organization’s esteem. I start with emails sent from the CEO, and then work with a small team to follow up. When an invitee wants to speak to the CEO of the Backbone Organization, we arrange for that to take place.

The Agenda

The Design Studio has three objectives: To put fire in the belly of those who care deeply about achieving the Common Agenda; to galvanize leadership to work together and take immediate action; and to begin working towards the Design Summit–a larger gathering to come of those who will work together on the Grand Challenge. (In a future article I will describe the Design Summit, another type of Touchstone Event.) 

The Design Studio leads to the formation of six working groups:

  1. The Leadership steering team: Takes responsibility for strategy, oversees the other working groups, ensures their progress is aligned with the Common Agenda (part of the Collective Impact model), and participates in the Design Summit.
  2. The Design Summit logistics team: Takes responsibility for booking the space, sending out the invitations, coordinating attendance, building the agenda, securing the presenters, etc.
  3. The Equity working group: Addresses how to achieve fairness and justice for groups and populations that suffer under structural constraints that have negatively impacted their position with regard to the Grand Challenge. The Equity group works with the other groups to include the voices and perspectives and faces of affected populations in your planning, events, and communications. This group makes sure representatives from marginalized populations are represented at the table.
  4. The Metrics working group: Determines how the Grand Challenge and its participants will measure success.
  5. The Funding Strategies working group: Determines how you will support your organization and your partners in raising the necessary resources to achieve impact.
  6. The  Communication and Outreach working group: Creates processes for sharing what you are doing both internally among participants and externally to interested parties like the press, partners, and researchers. This group develops a plan for summoning new organizations and individuals to join your work.

For each of the working groups, the first set of deliverables is due at the Design Summit and will be presented there.

JumpStart Storytelling

Because the Design Studio is the first meeting of your leaders, it is a crucial opportunity to ignite their passion before beginning the work. Once hearts are activated, a different quality of engagement ensues. I use JumpStart Storytelling to do this. (This is a small-group process designed to quickly engage participants, open hearts, and accelerate productive work.) 

I developed JumpStart Storytelling in working with the Center for Narrative Studies, the Center for Association Leadership, and the World Bank to accelerate rapport in professional meetings. It has the bonus of opening hearts for a cause that matters.

People share stories in small groups of four to eight about what matters most to them regarding the Common Agenda. The leader starts by giving an example. When people listen to another’s story they quickly get the idea of what is important. For example, when working on the Grand Challenge to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and substance use disorders, we asked people to tell a story of how stigma touches their lives. Here is the story I told for the anti-stigma Grand Challenge:

When I was a kid, my mom developed schizophrenia. It was in the 1970s and little was understood. She was not able to get help and her condition quickly consumed my father. Eventually, our family just fell apart. I moved out when I was 16. I did not have a good relationship with my mother until the ’90s when she got good meds. It wasn’t perfect, and she still had symptoms, but they were under control. 

I recall a Passover meal with my wife, her father, his wife, and my mom. My mom looked a little disheveled, her hair askew and some food dribbled onto her clothes. But she was able to hold her own in an intellectual discussion. My mother had a Ph.D. My wife’s family was wonderful. They understood her condition and were very loving toward my mom. But I was embarrassed, humiliated even, because of the stigma I carried in my own head. Stigma prevented me from loving my own mother as much as I wanted to. That’s one of the ways that stigma has impacted my life.

In just 90 seconds I shared a personal story of how I have been impacted by stigma. This modeling was enough for others to follow suit. In groups of eight, each person took 90 seconds, we told our stories. Then we switched tables and told our stories again. It was powerful. KleenexTM came out. Everyone was getting to know the other leaders in the room through their vulnerable life experience. In less than half an hour, everyone in the room had met 14 other people and heard their stories.

The emotional environment was transformed. It served us well, as a touchstone for what was real in our lives. It is this type of foundational activity that will take your group of leaders into the terrain of their passion around the Common Agenda.

Sample Agenda for a Design Studio

  1. Welcome, opening remarks, statement of intent including Jumpstart Storytelling.
  2. Mini-presentations of key content, each followed by group discussion
  3. Review of the strategy
  4. Soliciting interest for participation in the six working groups

Solving social problems is inherently SOCIAL-it happens in community. I’m looking for researchers, academicians, and those on the front lines who are battling overwhelming issues. The community will include leaders in all aspects of society: nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, independent agents, and thought leaders.

If you’re passionate about Grand Challenges or would like to be, visit my Medium account, where I am publishing on Grand Challenges. Let’s work together to address these sticky, systemic, complex, and wicked issues once and for all, for the sake of future generations of life on Earth.

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