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Everybody Should Be Pursuing A Grand Challenge — Here’s Why:

2018 January 14
by Greg Satell

A decade ago, Microsoft was considered a dinosaur. It had missed the shift to mobile, was out of step with consumer tastes and seemed too big and slow to adapt to a digital world that was moving at hyper-speed. Yet today, the company is thriving again, largely driven by a cloud business that is doubling every year.

This is not a new effort. In fact, it began in the early 2000’s, but was little noticed until recently. In much the same way, IBM’s Watson project, which is helping the venerable company overcome the disruption of its traditional business, began in 2005. Google has created its own moonshot factory, to pursue game changing technologies.

These are not ‘bet the company” initiatives, but sustained efforts to pursue grand challenges that can fundamentally change the realm of the possible. In recent years, we’ve come to associate the practice of innovation with speed and agility, but to what truly moves the needle can’t be achieved quickly or through mere iteration. We need to set our sights higher.

Why We Need to Think Bigger

One reason for the emphasis on agility and iteration in recent decades is that technology has been fairly stable. Every new generation of computer chips has offered more power and capability but works exactly like earlier generations. In much the same way, advancements in lithium-ion batteries meant that our devices could shrink, but little else had to change.

Today, though, those comfortable old paradigms are running out of steam. Moore’s law will soon end, and lithium-ion batteries will approach theoretical limits in five to 10 years. These will be replaced with technologies that aren’t nearly as well understood. Other nascent fields, like genomics, nanotechnology, and robotics, require highly skilled specialists to advance.

As I explain in my book, Mapping Innovation, in the coming years we are likely to see a new era of innovation that will look more like the 1950s and 1960s (which were about solving fundamental problems, like space flight and the development of mainframe computers) than it will the 1990s or 2000s (which were more about improving on earlier technology to create applications).

In the next few decades we are likely to see much of innovation’s value shift away from applications and back to fundamental problems. That will require greater focus on sustaining efforts to solve grand challenges.

What Makes A Grand Challenge?

The concept of a grand challenge can take many forms. IBM is one company that has a long history of pursuing grand challenges such as the Deep Blue project which defeated world champion Garry Kasparov at chess and the Blue Gene project which created a new class of “massively parallel” supercomputers. The most recent was the Jeopardy grand challenge, which led to the development of its current Watson business.

“A successful grand challenge is one that people, even experts in the field, regard as an epiphany and changes assumptions about what’s possible,” Bernard Meyerson, IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer, told me. “The commercial value comes in applying those new possibilities to business problems.”

However in other realms, the focus is somewhat different. For example, Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Executive Director of 100Kin10, a non-profit, which is spearheading the effort to train 100,000 STEM teachers in 10 years, told me, “For us in the social sphere, a grand challenge is a collective effort to get at root causes. We’re not only looking for a solution to a problem, but a permanent impact on everyday reality.”

Ron Depinho, who as President of MD Anderson Cancer Center launched its Moon Shots program, sees grand challenges as “as grand opportunities to deliver a population-level impact that requires the discovery and application of new knowledge and therefore a cross-sector, multidisciplinary effort.”

Shifting To A New Paradigm

Whatever form a grand challenge takes, it is an effort to pull an organization out of a purely operational mode and create a lasting paradigm shift. That is the both the promise and the peril of any truly ambitious effort, because critics often object to diverting resources from more pressing needs.

However, DePinho points out that over the long haul, these efforts tend to make good economic sense. “We actually learned that there tends to be so much spinout from a major collective effort that the end result tends to be an increase of effective resources,” because it propels many other efforts forward.

He points to The Cancer Genome Atlas, which sequenced over 10,000 tumor genomes across 33 types of cancer as an example. As a first of its kind effort, it created a new “periodic table” for cancer research and shifted the field in new directions. It also helped give rise to a similar effort, the Materials Genome Initiative, which hopes to make a comparable impact in manufacturing.

What makes projects like these so important is they represent permanent change, rather than a one-off accomplishment, and they inspire others to step up their own efforts. When The Cancer Genome Atlas first launched in 2005, it was somewhat controversial. Today, it is recognized as a standard and essential approach. In much the same way, many dismissed IBM’s Jeopardy! project as a parlor trick, but today machine learning has evolved into major field.

Managing Risk To Create An Asymmetric Opportunity

Another important aspect of grand challenges is that they represent managed risk. IBM’s Meyerson points out that projects like Deep Blue, Blue Gene and Watson differ significantly from his company’s development of the 360 mainframe back in the 1960’s, which cost $5 billion (about $40 billion in today’s dollars) and could have meant the end of IBM if it failed.

“Grand challenges are not about the amount of money you throw at the problem, he says. “To run a successful grand challenge program, failure should not be a material risk to the company, but success will have a monumental impact. That’s what makes grand challenges an asymmetric opportunity.”

Meyerson also points out that today’s technology makes the pursuit of ambitious projects far more accessible to smaller organization. “In the current environment of cloud computing, software as a service and open data, the opportunities for organizations of any size to pursue grand challenges with minimal capital expenditures is unprecedented.”

Perhaps most importantly, grand challenges advance an organizations mission. While incremental improvements can improve performance along an established trajectory, by solving a fundamental problem you can change the game entirely.

Moving From “What” To “Why”

Over the past two decades, the path forward was relatively clear. With stable technologies steadily improving, the main task was to figure out what to do with new capabilities. Should we make products that are cheaper or more powerful? Include more complex features or better compatibility? These were the central strategic questions.

Yet as we struggle to grasp the consequences of new technologies like quantum computing and CRISPR, we need to think more about how we can solve fundamental problems. Talia Milgrom-Elcott of 100Kin10 suggests that to do that, we need to ask more fundamental questions.

“You have to keep asking ‘why?’” she told me. “Keep asking why and you start to see connections that lead to root causes that have enormous leverage and that’s where you need to focus your efforts.”

In the final analysis, Innovation is about solving problems and the bigger problems you choose to tackle, the larger the potential payoff. Pursuing a grand challenge won’t improve your results next quarter, but can take your enterprise to a whole new level.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in Harvard Business Review

8 Responses leave one →
  1. January 14, 2018


    Why do you not include my work in these essays?

    I started in 1974 showing how ridiculous the standard home loan model in use was at that time.

    But it was not adopted despite huge support from the editors of the industry magazine.

    A similar model is now in use in Turkey. It is a crude version, but it works. They claim that it takes inflationary pressures down. It does – it prevents payments from leaping up when inflation rates change / interest rates rise.

    A refined version was presented to a top-drawer review committee and everyone agree it was a great new lending and savings model. No one could fault it. But they were afraid of losing their reputations by endorsing it until they found that none of them could fault it. What was needed was an explanation of why the entire economy seemed to benefit.

    It was taken to the Institute of actuaries for further comment. They were totally impressed. They saw how it would benefit the entire economy. But why – still a good explanation was needed.

    Why was it not taken up by the big institutions? That is probably one reason why. Another is that a new concept has to be sold hard and they were doing well enough already.

    Plus legislation stands in the way. We do not have that much freedom of competition.

    The basic idea which was to create a link between repayments and National Average Earnings / incomes was extended to linking the maturity value of treasuries to the same index.

    The idea could be seen to work well for commercial finance as well.

    In every case risk reduces, finance becomes cheaper, confidence in savings and borrowing becomes almost endemic whereas today it is almost the opposite.

    I tried this out in lectures to universities. One head of department said he thought I could be considered for a professorship. But I am only an engineer by academic standards.

    The struggle continued and additional ideas which I instinctively knew needed to be added in to stabilise not just the property sector, and the savings sector and government debt and pensions, but currency. And the way in which monetary policy operated.

    Today I have managed to demonstrate the exact fundamental reasons why all of these ideas make perfect sense economically.

    Today one of the universities to which I lectured is offering the work as a course, but without legislative changes that course does not offer jobs nor, being short, does it give a recognised qualification.

    However, this past week I approached the top people there and suggested that it should become a part of a degree course in banking and/or economics and maybe actuarial science.

    This suggestion has been agreed in principle. A group of their best lecturers will study the ideas and will, if approved – which it will be based on what others of similar calibre have found – polish up the texts and so forth and submit it to the Vice Chancellor. It will then create the leading degree courses in economics and banking in the world.

    The estimated benefits of adopting the changes may be as much as 2% p.a. added to world/national output.

    There is nothing like adding confidence and pricing stability to make an economy boom.

    There is nothing like taking away risk to remove huge swathes of economic and social damage.

    The monetary policy instruments needed are fewer and significantly more effective than what we have now.

    I refer you to my key blog / web page for a description and links.

    The BOOK SUUMARY is a good place to look.

    Best wishes,


    I will put the link on the next comment so that you can delete that if you wish without deleting this comment.

  2. January 14, 2018

    It seems that your website does not accept links?

  3. Tony Carr permalink
    January 14, 2018

    Hi Greg,

    If you live in Gladwyne, we are neighbors and neighbors must meet.

    Happy New Year,


    /Users/josephcarr/Desktop/Pursuit of Wellbeing.pdf

  4. January 15, 2018

    Good luck with it Edward!

    – Greg

  5. January 15, 2018

    Sure. Can you get in touch via LinkedIn?

    – Greg

  6. January 15, 2018

    Yes my contact details can be found at LinkedIn

    The email address is currently not working and is due to be replaced asap.

  7. May 30, 2018

    I totally agree that we are entering a new era of innovation, and most companies are not seeing it, only a few. The changes are very fast and even small markets will be disrupted. I like the concept of Grand Challenges, that gives us a new vision of things to come.

  8. May 31, 2018

    Great to hear! Thanks Ulises!

    – Greg

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