Upward Spiral: A Grand Challenge Methodology

Grand Challenges are complex, but they don’t have to be overwhelming.

The sequence in my methodology is designed to help anyone get a handle on a Grand Challenge’s complexity, so that they can join in mobilizing for systemic social change. The Upward Spiral is the model I have developed in my work as a Grand Challenge facilitator. You are welcome to adapt and customize it to fit the nuances of the challenge you are facing. 

The Upward Spiral is comprised of three patterns, differentiated by color and placement:

  • Group Learning (in orange, front of spiral) 
  • Group Action (blue, back of spiral)
  • Touchstone Events (dark blue landings that appear at intervals on the left side of the spiral)

With that in mind, let’s get to know the spiral.

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Orange Pattern: Group Learning

I am struck by how much a Grand Challenge is about continuous group learning, regardless of its focus or scope. The moment a group of people comes together with an interest in standing up a Grand Challenge, the learning begins. Therefore, in my facilitation work, I present six key themes for group study.

I begin with the elements of successful Touchstone Events, because organizing effective events is crucial to harnessing the many perspectives and avenues of action that will lead to societal shifts.

Next, I draw on the work of Christina Economos, a Tufts University professor who studied past successful social movements that shifted Americans’ attitudes 180° on issues including seatbelt use, tobacco, recycling, and breastfeeding. By studying each of these in detail, she identified the ten key elements in Creating a Social Movement. I provide a diagnostic tool to help groups assess their readiness to execute these elements.

Solving large-scale social problems demands coordination across multiple sectors. The leadership group responsible for governance and vision needs to learn about the Collective Impact Model, because it offers a structured form of collaboration that brings together committed groups of individuals and organizations from different sectors, all while centered on equity. 

Leaders of the Grand Challenge have to anticipate future challenges, breakthroughs, assets, and weaknesses as best they can. Strategic Foresight provides methods for actively gathering information about the future and connecting the dots in order to see the larger patterns and trends emerging.

Grand Challenge Systems draw on work done by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to deliver health care interventions. Here we address four elements: Personal belief systems, Interpersonal relationships, Communities (e.g. professional, regional, workplace) and Local, state, and federal policy. Together, these make up what I refer to as the Systems Model for Change.

The final crucial group learning is about Ecosystem Activation. Every Grand Challenge involves an ecosystem that includes all the organizations and people whose interdependence must be understood and used effectively. A short list might include: Consumers, Providers, Beneficiaries and their families, Government agencies, Private companies, Non-government organizations (NGOs), Thought leaders, Schools, Faith organizations, and Researchers. When successfully activated, this ecosystem gives the players what they need to advance the Common Agenda together.

I will be publishing articles about each of these Group Learning topics in the future.

But a key attribute of my Upward Spiral model is that group action follows hard on the heels of group learning! The problem addressed by a Grand Challenge is emergent and chaotic—its properties are changing even while we study those properties. There will never be a point when learning is complete, so action must begin while learning continues.

Blue Pattern: Group Action

I have grouped Dr. Christina Economos’s model for Creating a Social Movement into three phases. During the first phase, Frame and Build the Case, leaders articulate the Grand Challenge as an urgent problem, using science-based research and quantified economics to show the cost of inaction. This sparks momentum in the early social movement.

In the second phase, Gather Allies, champions build coalitions that mobilize networks of people around the Common Agenda. Government involvement engages public servants to drive policy changes and develop a flexible plan to ensure broad involvement.

In the third phase, Implement the Plan, synergy across initiatives leads to sustained impact. Advocacy, mass communication, and policy change work together to drive desired behavior changes and achieve the Grand Challenge's goals.

I wrote in detail about this model in my article Creating a Social Movement with Grand Challenges.

Landings Pattern: Touchstone Events

Events drive progress. This pattern represents the gatherings that are critical to a Grand Challenge initiative. I call these Touchstone Events. When people land in a space together, in real time, social bonding and synergy move their impact forward in large steps.

Knowing how to create events that inspire action and transform uncertainty into passionate enthusiasm is a core skill in this work. I use events throughout the Grand Challenges I facilitate, for meetings as small as two and as large as two thousand attendees.

As the spiral shows, the work launches with two sequential events. The Design Studio is the first. This is the initial gathering of leaders who, regardless of organization size or recognition, are critical players for success. It is an engagement activity that brings together experts and people of influence who are 1) committed to the Common Agenda (i.e., addressing the crisis) and 2) positioned to wield the right kind of influence. The Design Studio  takes place as soon as the groundwork has been laid in learning about why Touchstone Events are necessary and how to design them for success, plus initial learning about Creating a Social Movement and the Collective Impact approach to collaboration.

The Design Summit is the second Touchstone Event. It occurs when an initial strategy has been developed. The time is ripe to bring together the first wave of allies—the organizations and people who will become major players in the Grand Challenge. The Design Summit is a platform where the team that has laid the groundwork reveals the strategy and receives constructive criticism from various perspectives. The primary purpose is to create an action plan with key players that will turn into a social movement.

More Touchstone Events follow at intervals, where participants dive deep and make contact with what is real, essential, and core to the work of change, in ways that generate powerful forward thrust. These events engage people with the Grand Challenge strategy. Touchstone events can be topic-specific, bringing together thought leaders in a relevant field, for example, or cross-functional, liberating knowledge from silos and facilitating collaboration. At these events, people are stress-testing the authenticity of the social movement that is building. They’re asking questions, issuing challenges, trying out tools. In a future article I will lay out guidelines for creating successful Touchstone Events.

Standing up a Grand Challenge spirals upward through these three activity patterns—Group Learning, Group Action, and Touchstone Events.


You are one person. You see an intractable problem; your soul burns to take action. But you know one person alone cannot possibly achieve results at scale. Where to start?

Put your passion into words—frame the case and communicate so people get it and spread it. To do this, you need what I call a  Springboard Story. This is a specific kind of story that sparks action.

A Springboard Story tells about an instance where what you want to do has already happened successfully. In my work I use Springboard Stories about the ANA’s Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation, the AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange,  or the Huntsman Mental Health Institute’s Stop Stigma Together, because those are Grand Challenges I have been involved in. You can tell a story about a verifiable success in your own domain.

A Springboard Story has a protagonist (main character) your audience can readily identify with; a specific incident where the change has already taken place; and a happy ending with verifiable results. Strip out unnecessary detail. Then start telling that story everywhere you can spark interest, among your stakeholders, your leadership, and your network of connections. You may soon find yourself part of a Grand Challenge, riding your own Upward Spiral. You can learn everything you want to know about Springboard Stories by reading Stephen Denning’s book, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations.

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.

Do you want to know more?
Email me – seth@visionaryleadership.com.

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