In Grand Challenges, Touchstone Events Drive Progress

Knowing how to create events that inspire action is a core skill.

This is Part One of a two-part article.

Every Grand Challenge initiative is event-driven because events drive progress. I use events throughout the Grand Challenges I facilitate; I created the Touchstone Events pattern to harness and direct the social bonding and synergy that happen uniquely when people share space with each other. (In my experience it must be in-person. In a pinch can you make a hybrid or virtual event serve as a Touchstone Event? Yes. Will it be as good? No.)

Meetings small and large are a crucial means to orient newcomers into the initiative, to transform individual uncertainty into shared passion, and to align working-group actions for powerful results. Knowing how to create events that transform the best in each of us into united action against a wicked problem is a core skill in this work.

In developing the Touchstone Event pattern (introduced here), I drew on my years in street theater, artistic rites of passage, professional storytelling, and building over 100 performance communities at the World Bank. I distilled those diverse experiences into a series of event designs that launch a Grand Challenge with a Design Studio, where the architecture of a social movement is born; expand on it with a Design Summit, where a group of separate organizations are midwifed into a coordinated network; and subsequent Touchstone Events where people engage with the Grand Challenge strategy for deep dives into specific topics, cross-functional knowledge-sharing and/or celebrations of collective accomplishments.

This is a real Touchstone Event in progress. Three scientific organizations came together to brainstorm about a Grand Challenge to take on in 2019.
This is a real Touchstone Event in progress. Three scientific organizations came together to brainstorm about a Grand Challenge to take on in 2019.

In Grand Challenges, Touchstone Events fuel the spirit, lift the heart, and create bonds of community among all participants.

They can also serve as a forum for action reviews and committing to new tactics. The intent that drives a Touchstone Event is to dive deep and make contact with what is real, essential, and core to the work of change in ways that generate powerful forward momentum.

Genuineness and fearless pursuit of excellence are at the heart of what drives people forward in dramatic surges of progress. From this powerful center, real transformation takes place. But people will want to test it. So, give them something powerful to test and welcome their pushback.

Here’s an example. The Center for Financial Planning (CFP) is leading a Grand Challenge to transform the financial planning industry. Getting more people of color and women into the talent pipeline was one of many necessary changes they hoped to bring about. Toward that end, they began hosting Diversity Summits; (an example of Touchstone Events in action). Over 400 people attended our first Diversity Summit.

During a panel discussion there, a young Black woman stood up and said (I am paraphrasing), “I was a young single mom doing financial planning full time for a very wealthy family. As I came to learn, they were deeply prejudiced. I was not in a position to take a stand with them, so I had to leave. If we want more women of color in our profession, how are we going to keep people like me safe and not push this diversity initiative through on our backs?”

When someone stands up and says something like that, this person is testing you. How do you handle it?

In this case, the conference leaders actually stopped the proceedings and made it a point not to simply move on, but in real time, to respond with appropriate concern.

Throughout the rest of that Diversity Summit, the leaders incorporated the issue she had raised; it became a theme. They used her pushback to drive deeper into relevant issues. Participants were satisfied by this response, which acknowledged the complexity of the issue and pointed toward possible solutions. This transformed the pushback into support and engagement. It contributed to a successful summit.

The CFP was unusual in that it grabbed the opportunity that bringing together their prized professionals offered. As a result, they create something far more transformative than the typical conference that barely rises above a nice memory.

Done well, a Touchstone Event moves the entire community forward in giant leaps, constructing the common beliefs and understandings that sustain coherent activity into the foreseeable future. The usual conference antics, ranging from rock bands and laser light shows to M&M-throwing facilitators, create a carnival atmosphere that pales in comparison to a Touchstone Event. It is like contrasting a ride on a Ferris wheel at a local circus with a thoughtful and moving wedding ceremony. The first is fun on a good day and a nice diversion; the latter is a life-affirming milestone that changes the participants forever in the ongoing human drama of existence.

In my next article,  I offer my proven format for creating Touchstone Events that unleash a group’s power to drive dramatic forward progress toward systemic change.

Touchstone Events are one of three patterns in The Upward Spiral, the model I have developed in my work as a Grand Challenge facilitator. The others are Group Learning and Group Action. You are welcome to adapt and customize each to fit the nuances of the challenge you are facing. I will continue to publish articles about each of these topics.

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.


The original touchstone was basanite, a smooth, black stone used to test the quality of gold and silver. It was rubbed across the precious metal, and the authenticity could be determined by the color of the streak produced. The word touchstone now means anything that tests genuineness or excellence.


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