Why I Facilitate Grand Challenges

Seth Kahan on Grand Challenges

The world is burning and churning. Wicked problems are everywhere. But so are the champions who take them on!

While working at the World Bank as a leadership facilitator, I had the chance to see many enormous projects succeed and fail. I learned the components that contributed to their success and honed my facilitation skills. After leaving the World Bank, I brought those skills and insights to my work as an executive consultant. Over time, I have become a Grand Challenge facilitator, working with leaders who want to apply this powerful approach to social problems in their spheres of influence.  Many of the big dilemmas the world faces are begging for a Grand Challenge approach, but coordinating the response takes experience and expertise. That is why people like me are needed.

My first three Grand Challenges were all with professional societies—associations dedicated to a particular profession—earth and space scientists, nurses, and financial planners. My next Grand Challenge was broader, working with a certification organization, Inteleos, which provides certification for medical ultrasound practitioners to safeguard public health. Today I am working with a mental health institute funded by a family foundation to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and substance use disorders. 

All of these Grand Challenges involved creating alliances with world-class organizations: academic institutions, large hospital systems, massive healthcare providers, government, and private sector giants. The learning opportunities for me were immense, leading to my position among the thought leaders in the field of massive social change efforts.

What constitutes a “Grand Challenge”?

A Grand Challenge is a collaborative response to a significant social problem that demands large-scale change. The social problem is so complex, it requires solutions from multiple fields of expertise. Grand Challenges typically require a sustained effort over time and involve significant resources and investment. 

The domain expertise on which a Grand Challenge draws may include science, technology, economics, social policy, education, legislation and more; addressing the problem will certainly involve interconnected sectors. Grand Challenges cross the boundaries of organizations and jurisdictions.

The Grand Challenge approach differs from other types of responses to societal issues in that at its launch, no one knows HOW to solve the problem. The problem identified is complex and emergent. Solutions have not yet been found in any domain. The problem is chaotic and constantly evolving; what worked to address it in one instance may not work in another. For these reasons, Grand Challenges, unlike any other kind of problem/solution approach, require group learning and multi-sided collaboration. They always involve a social movement, bringing individuals and organizations together to work in concert on multiple dimensions simultaneously.  From these activities new solutions emerge. 

The concept of a Grand Challenge is not just an idea; it is a vehicle of change supported by research and effective models, documented with case studies. Because this approach is unique from other methodologies, I use and encourage others to use the term “Grand Challenge” for a sustained effort across alliances of stakeholders to positively affect a significant social issue. 

What am I doing here in the Grand Challenge space?

My work on Grand Challenges has taught me how difficult it can be to take on a systemic issue. Because of this, I am building a community of practice designed for people who are tackling Grand Challenges.

When I turned 60 in 2019, I decided to dedicate the remainder of my professional activities to making the world a better place. I convened 40 of my friends and family and we gathered at my home. I spoke about the importance of Grand Challenges, big bold goals that take on the world's toughest problems, and how I will be shifting my focus to helping people take on these profound challenges. I want to do this by building a body of work that shares the models, frameworks, and experiences that I have found to be good tools and reference points. I received many blessings from my family and friends, and I pursued professional engagements that promised the opportunity to impact systemic social problems for the better. 

In this time when challenges are of epic proportions, we must tackle large systemic issues like social justice, climate change, the pandemic, food insecurity, and other problems facing people and the planet. This is why I facilitate Grand Challenges: to be a force for positive change. 

What are you doing here?

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 into 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.

Scroll to Top