Engaging Grand Challenges: A Four-Step Process

Successfully engaging in grand challenge strategy starts with CEO leadership and passion. But, it takes a team to identify a noble purpose that is a match for your organization and a village to develop a grand challenge strategy.

As the world continues to get smaller and association executives seek vehicles to ensure a future where their organizations thrive, the answer may lie, in part, in embracing a grand challenge initiative. Engaging in grand challenge strategy gives back to society and pays benefits to the association, yet so few associations take a leadership role in this area.

Often, lack of engagement is because associations don’t think they are large enough or have the resources to execute grand challenge strategy, especially if it is global in nature. The truth of the matter is, your association doesn’t have to be large or global to lead on grand challenge strategy. Further, stepping up to the plate to convene people for the purpose of creating grand challenge strategy doesn’t mean that you are left holding the bag on execution.

So, if it doesn’t require a large association or responsibility for execution, what does it take to succeed?

Create a climate for change

The first step is creating a climate for change and a desire to engage in something bigger than the association itself and its members. You want to inspire your leadership and members to harness the power of your association to make a difference.

This starts with identifying or developing grand challenge champions amongst your volunteer leadership. The best way to get champions on board is to develop a compelling story. Your story needs to demonstrate why engaging in grand challenge makes sense for the organization and, at the same time, create an emotional connection with the champion.

As you are developing your story, consider how engaging a grand challenge aligns with the organizations mission or noble purpose and, if possible, your organization’s strategic initiatives. Give considerable thought to how to best frame the initiative for each champion you approach.

Although it is too early at this stage to identify and promote a specific grand challenge initiative, give thought to possible initiatives that can be used as examples when you tell your story. As you think about possible initiatives that might make sense for your organization, consider the intellectual capital and expertise your members possess and how that might be applied to a noble goal that provides value to society at large.

Ultimately, at this stage, the goal is to create champions for engaging in grand challenge strategy as a concept, more so than locking the organization into pursuing a specific grand challenge. In fact, it is too early in the process to lock in on a specific challenge. The examples in the champion building phase are used to create an emotional connection and to get the champions thinking about what might be possible.

ID the right noble purpose / topic

Once you’ve developed buy in at the leadership level, the next step is to identify the right noble goal or grand challenge for your association. This is often an iterative process and there isn’t one way to get there.

Sometimes a noble cause will be evident as a result of your mission, the current environment and an immediate societal need. However, often this is not the case and you will have to engage members and others in the process of identifying the right challenge to tackle.

From a process point, you want to begin with a divergent mindset and identify as many ideas as possible. You might begin to surface ideas by individually engaging stakeholders in informal generative. I have also used an online brainstorming tool to identify some initial concepts.

The next step is to convene a group of thought leaders to explore ideas. Again, this meeting should begin with divergent thinking exercises before the group converges on top priority challenge(s) they think might make sense. It is important that your thought leader group is diverse. In identifying thought leaders, consider including people outside of your organization. In fact, consider inviting thought leaders from other parts of the world, even if you are a national organization.

Depending on the initial topics, organizational structure or industry politics, you may want to convene additional groups to further explore grand challenge ideas. Keep in mind, that the identification phase is an opportunity to engage members and other stakeholders early on, which is important for creating excitement and buy in.

Ultimately, you are looking for a noble cause / grand challenge that is aligned with your mission around which you can build a story that will create an emotional connection with your members and potential collaborators. Once you’ve identified your grand challenge, it’s time to design a strategy development process and develop the grand challenge strategy.

Develop a strategy

The three key components of grand challenge strategy are diverse perspective, problem identification and problem investigation. As such, it is important to invest considerable time in identifying the participants that you will convene to develop the strategy. In doing so, you will want to consider all stakeholders that could potentially help solve the problem you are attacking. It is important to include key collaborators and organizations that can impact the outcome early on in the process; if an organization can likely play a significant role in the elimination of the grand challenge or holds an important key to the solution, they should be engaged in the strategy development process.

Begin your strategy development think tank with an exploration of the problem. The initial purpose of the exploration is to confirm, restate or modify the problem. You may want to attack the initial macro problem or you may determine that it makes more sense to develop strategy that more narrowly focuses on a particular root cause. After the group buys in to the final problem statement, it is time to thoroughly investigate the problem and develop a strategy that attacks root cause(s).

There are a number of methodologies that can be applied in the development of grand challenge strategy. In the end, you want to use appropriate methodology to identify and examine existing programs and initiatives, as well as forces in the environment that will either facilitate or impede your ability to successfully address the grand challenge.

The time it takes to develop the initial strategy framework will very depending on the issue at hand. I have worked on grand challenges where we convened people for a one-day think tank and where we have convened people for two two-day think tanks.

Once the group has developed a strategy, time should be invested in developing an action / execution plan. You might also consider using the think tank group for initial input on the development of a communication plan.

Strategy Execution

Although the organization leading the development of the grand challenge strategy may decide to take the lead on execution, this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, a convener’s resources may pale in comparison to what is needed to carry out the strategy. That’s ok. If you have done a good job on bringing in the right collaborators and partners in the beginning of the process collectively significant advancement can be made against the strategy.

It is also important to keep in mind that a very important and significant role the convener can play (as well as other participants) is acting as a catalyst to get others that have the resources to make a difference in strategy execution. Good strategy combined with a great story can get institutions like the World Bank (and other development banks), World Health Organization, international organizations, government agencies and major corporations on board.

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