What is a Grand Challenge?

The term, Grand Challenge, has been used for more than 50 years to denote a variety of challenges facing society. Since then the term has been used to describe many large-scale initiatives that have wide social impact. I use Grand Challenge to refer to the have developed my own tools and methods.

Examples include climate change, hyper-partisanship, systemic racism, childhood obesity, balancing the workforce with women and people of color, measurably improving health across a professional population, addressing natural and man-made disasters with Earth-friendly responses, ensuring proficiency on rapidly spreading medical devices, and so on. These are all big, messy problems with lot of moving parts and no clear path to success. 

No one industry or organization controls all the contributing factors. No single "owner" can step up and take action. Throwing money at an awareness program only squanders resources and resolve. The sheer complexity of such daunting issues makes them perfect Grand Challenges.

Examples of Grand Challenges

  1. Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation - Measurably improve the health of America’s 4 million nurses and by extension, the nation’s.
  2. Inteleos Ultrasound Proficiency Grand ChallengeGiving Midwives and Skilled Birth Attendants the Skills, Knowledge & Technology to Save Lives.
  3. Thriving Earth Exchange - Scientists, community leaders and sponsors working together to solve local challenges related to natural resources, climate change and natural hazards.
  4. Center for Financial Planning - Creating a more diverse and sustainable financial planning profession.
  5. Mental Health Stigma Grand Challenge - Eradicate the stigma of mental health and substance use disorders.

Grand Challenges are the result of intractable, systemic issues.
Today we have new tools to tackle them. I spell out the most powerful ones I use below.

Tools for Taking on Grand Challenges

Key to addressing a Grand Challenge is mobilizing the entire ecosystem that needs to change in order to achieve the common agenda. Fortunately, there are three great frameworks to help with this: Ten Key Elements of a Successful Social Movement, Collective Impact, and the Grand Challenge Systems Model for Change.

Ten Key Elements of a Successful Social Movement

In 2001 Dr. Christina Economos and a team of researchers published a paper1 that studied past successful social movements that shifted behavior in America 180° on a specific issue, including seatbelt usage, tobacco cessation, recycling, and breastfeeding. By studying each of these in detail, they identified ten critical components of a social movement.

First comes the work to Frame & Build the Case:

1) The first is to Frame the Crisis.
While it is true that there is an aspirational side to every initiative, people will not give it the attention it requires unless there is a clear and threatening problem that will personally cause harm to many people.

2) Science-based research, evidence, and data must be collected and synthesized in an easy-to-access manner, so people can see what needs to be addressed.

3) Economics must be spelled out, i.e., the dollar cost of not addressing the crisis.

Next, it is time to Gather Allies:

4) Develop a Plan that brings all of this together and is shared widely to reassure people that they are joining something well thought out. The plan must be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities and adapt to the unexpected.

5) Champions are the human actors that push for results, especially where there are challenges.

6) Coalition Building is key to mobilizing networks of people who share the common agenda. 

7) Government involvement is key as people look to their local, state, and federal officials to advocate for effective strategies and push forward solutions. 

Finally, it is time to Implement the Plan:

8) Advocacy is critical to create change at all levels, from grassroots to policy. 

9) Mass communication reaches large audiences, raises awareness, and influences public will. 

10) Environment and Policy Change make creating and sustaining systemic change possible. 

1What Lessons Have Been Learned from Other Attempts to Guide Social Change?
Christina D. Economos, Ph.D, Ross C. Brownson, Ph.D, Michael A. DeAngelis, MS, MPH, R.D, Susan B. Foerster, M.P.H., R.D, Carol Tucker Foreman, Ph.D, Jennifer Gregson, M.P.H., CHES, Shiriki K. Kumanyika, Ph.D., RD, M.P.H, Russell R. Pate, Ph.D, , Nutrition Reviews, Volume 59, Issue 3, March 2001, Pages S40–S56,

Collective Impact

The Collective Impact model2 by John Kania and Mark Kramer incorporates the key findings by Dr. Economos and others into a schema that can be used to tackle complex and difficult social issues. Collective impact has been well documented in the Stanford Social Innovation Review and inspires thousands of people to apply this model to a wide variety of social challenges.

This model continues to evolve. Today it has been recognized that for Collective Impact to succeed, it must be centered in equity. In a recent article3, published in 2022, Kania and Kramer have revised their definition of Collective Impact: Collective impact is a network of community members, organizations, and institutions that advance equity by learning together, aligning, and integrating their actions to achieve population and systems-level change.

I have adopted this approach and the five essential elements of a successful Collective Impact initiative to address Grand Challenges. The five elements are:

  1. The Common Agenda, shaped by collectively defining the problem and creating a shared vision to solve it.
  2. Shared Measurement, based on an agreement among all partners to track and share progress in the same way, allowing for continuous learning, improvement, and accountability.
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities, integrating the partners’ many different activities to maximize the result.
  4. Continuous Communication, to provide transparency and build trust.
  5. A Backbone Team, dedicated to aligning and coordinating the group’s work.

The Collective Impact model has eight principles for success:

  1. Design and implement with a priority placed on equity, i.e., achieving fairness and justice for groups and populations that suffer under structural constraints that have negatively impacted their mental health.
  2. Include community members and those with lived experiences.
  3. Recruit and co-create with cross-sector partners.
  4. Use data, learn, adapt, and improve continuously.
  5. Cultivate leaders who understand how to work in systems and approach challenges holistically to create long-term solutions.
  6. Focus on program and system strategies.
  7. Build a culture that fosters relationships, trust, and respect across partners.
  8. Develop multifaceted strategies that meet a full range of needs.

2Collective Impact
Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Stanford Social Innovation Review, 9(1), 36–41.

3Centering Equity in Collective Impact.
Kania, J., Williams, J., Schmitz, P., Brady, S., Kramer, M., & Juster, J. S. (2021). Stanford Social Innovation Review, 20(1), 38–45.

The Grand Challenge Systems Model for Success

Working with Grand Challenges has taught me that taking on a systemic issue can be formidable. To address something with so many intertwining tentacles, I have developed the Grand Challenge Systems Model for Change. To do this I have drawn on work done at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, specifically the writings of Kenneth R. McLeroy, PhD, et al4.  Think of an intractable problem as a complex system in which at least one aspect has stabilized in an undesirable state.

In the Systems Model for Change, each element is itself a system—of personal beliefs, of interpersonal relationships, of affiliations, and of policy. If you are going to create a social movement, each system will need an intervention explicitly designed to move the needle toward the desired change and taking into consideration its interdependencies with the other systems.

The Four Levels of the Systems Model for Change

  1. Personal Beliefs—your internal dialogue, the things that you tell yourself, your mindset—must be addressed for behavior change to take place on the individual level.
  2. Interpersonal Relationships exist among the people you interact with daily, including the people you share your house with and anyone else who's a regular part of your life, such as a faith community and your co-workers. You derive support from the people who form your personal community.
  3. Places of Work, Professional Communities, and Geographic Regions are affiliations that you are a member of. Every group develops its own customs, habits, and expectations, which support the status quo, maintain stability, and therefore often resist change.
  4. Policy means the laws and regulations that you're operating under, as set by local, state, and federal governing bodies.

4 An Ecological Perspective on Health Promotion Programs
McLeroy KR, Bibeau D, Steckler A, Glanz K. Health Education Quarterly. 1988;15(4):351-377.

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