A big problem with big problems

By their very nature, grand challenges—complex problems with massive societal implications, such as curing HIV/AIDS, mapping the human genome, or developing molecular manufacturing—demand sustained attention from the brightest minds in many different disciplines.

Yet one significant difficulty of these grand challenges is a seeming paradox: the very process of bringing together the best thinkers in many fields may sow the seeds of a project’s undoing.

Questrom associate professors Stine Grodal and Siobhan O’Mahony study this phenomenon in a case study of a nanotechnology grand challenge to create molecular manufacturing, “How does a Grand Challenge Become Displaced? Explaining the Duality of Field Mobilization.” The pair show how competing and misaligned goals—combined with a lack of oversight—can derail an ambitious vision. Here’s how: 

  • Interest misalignment. While an inspiring vision (and attendant government and private funding) can encourage disparate groups to join a grand challenge, members of these groups still feel the pull of the familiar goals of their discipline, says Grodal. “The academic community might agree to focus on a grand challenge, but [individual] professors are also interested in publishing in top journals and funding graduate students, which can create misalignment between a grand challenge and a community’s existing goals.”
  • Goal displacement. The nearer-term achievement of smaller goals can feel more compelling than the uncertain achievement of larger ones. This may be why experts in nanotechnology have developed advances in existing areas— stain-resistant pants and improved sunscreens, for example—but have not yet solved the problem of molecular manufacturing. “People graft on to the grand challenge but are rewarded by the status quo, and end up pursuing goals that are closer to their existing work.”
  • Lack of oversight. To stay on track for a grand challenge, there must be people with a roadmap who track progress and ensure that everyone is focused on arriving at the right destination. In the case of molecular manufacturing, scientists, entrepreneurs, and government officials were empowered to invest funding in projects that supported their own missions—not just the larger goals of the molecular manufacturing grand challenge. With little overarching supervision, Grodal says, it shouldn’t be a surprise that communities found plenty of reasons to support their own missions more robustly than the mission of the grand challenge.

There’s no question that grand challenges can mobilize groups to achieve more than they could alone. But as Grodal’s and O’Mahony’s research shows, a big dream is not sufficient even when funds are allocated: it must be paired with effective oversight, truly dedicated communities, and a sustained commitment to achieving a grand challenge’s most ambitious aims.

Read the complete case study on Academy of Management.



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