Why “Retire” a Youthful Idea? The Coming of Age of the Grand Challenges Concept

A response to Christian Seelos, Johanna Mair, and Charlotte Traeger, “The Future of Grand Challenges Research: Retiring a Hopeful Concept and Endorsing Research Principles.” Published in the International Journal of Management Reviews.

By Patrick Haack, Director of the HEC Research Center for Grand Challenges

You may be wondering why the Grand Challenges Blog has published a summary of a recent review paper which, after surveying the growing literature on Grand Challenges, recommends “retiring” the Grand Challenges concept. Are we about to shut down or rename the newly created HEC Research Center for Grand Challenges?

Of course not. But the article by Christian Seelos, Johanna Mair, and Charlotte Traeger makes some important points. We very much welcome their contribution, and I am grateful that they accepted our invitation to write a short summary of it for this blog. My ambition in this short commentary is to critically reflect on the usefulness of the Grand Challenges concept and contribute to the conversation on whether and not it should be abandoned. I wrap up the post by describing how the Grand Challenges concept is helping the HEC Research Center for Grand Challenges to structure its activities.   

The Primary Objective of the Grand Challenges Concept: Legitimation, Coordination, and . . . Therapy

In their paper, a systematic review of conceptual and empirical research on Grand Challenges published in leading management journals over the past ten years, Christian and his coauthors find that attributes and phenomena associated with Grand Challenges are very diverse and lack coherence across three distinct conceptual architectures. The authors conclude that the Grand Challenges concept is too broad to contribute to the accumulation of knowledge and fails to inform management practices. Given the lack of conceptual clarity that they perceive, they call for management scholarship to abandon (“retire”) the concept and instead work within a set of research principles that they have developed to guide empirical research on Grand Challenges.

The Grand Challenges concept has indeed been used to study a diverse set of phenomena and contexts, and it has become a loosely defined and ambiguous umbrella concept with significant surplus meaning, in part because “umbrella advocates” such as journal editors, publishers, and authors have encouraged researchers to incorporate it into their research. According to Hirsch and Levin (1999), concepts pass through stages of maturity as a result of the dynamic tension between such “umbrella advocates” and “validity police.” In a first stage, umbrella advocates introduce and promote a new construct that is sufficiently broad to cover and account for very different phenomena. In a second stage, the validity police force umbrella advocates to conceptualize and study the construct more narrowly and thereby enhance conceptual clarity.

Christian and his coauthors’ recommendation that we retire the Grand Challenges concept seems to be strongly influenced by their position on this dialectic. That position surprised me, in two different respects. First, they seem to overlook the value of what has been achieved in this first stage of the Grand Challenges concept’s maturing. Where they mainly see unhelpful proliferation and dilution, I see a blossoming of new areas of interest and new collaborations in management scholarship as a result of the legitimating and coordinating effects that the umbrella concept has had. The purpose of the initial phase of the life cycle, in my view, is not primarily to test or accumulate knowledge or to inform management practices. It is rather to establish legitimacy for a new research focus and attract new “adopters” of the discourse. In this view, the term Grand Challenges has been functioning as an open signifier that has allowed researchers seeking to move beyond firm efficiency and performance—topic areas that used to serve as the primary source of academic legitimacy and thus access to grants, jobs, and influence in business schools—to communicate, coordinate, and bond with like-minded peers.

Second, Christian and his coauthors reject the idea that the validity police will be able to hone the Grand Challenges concept’s clarity so that it can better yield knowledge accumulation, and this rejection appears to be what leads them to call for the Grand Challenges concept to be retired. I think their rejection here is hasty. It seems to be based entirely on a recent paper by Alvesson and Blom (2022), in which the authors deem the validity of police’s work ineffective in the context of the concepts that they studied. Even if Alvesson and Blom’s observation is correct, in my view the conclusion that should be drawn by researchers who have embraced Grand Challenges is that, when the time is right to do so, we should consciously embrace the validity police function and make it improve the Grand Challenges concept—not abandon the concept altogether while it is still in its youthful umbrella phase. If we can make the dialectic between umbrella advocates and validity police yield the outcomes Hirsch and Levin (1999) described, what is the benefit of retiring a concept that is now thriving in the early phases of its life cycle and has undisputedly proven its ability to focus attention on and generate enthusiasm for analysis of social and environmental issues in management? To stay within the metaphor, is it not better to help the concept to grow up, supporting it in its transition from difficult adolescence to maturity?

Besides the legitimation and coordination functions of the Grand Challenges concept, I think there is a third, seldom discussed function: a therapeutic function. By “therapeutic” I mean the ability of the Grand Challenges concept (and the discourse surrounding it) to give management scholars a clearer sense of how their research can be worthwhile to society. Scholars in management and organization studies continue to face accusations, often from within their own field, that their research is irrelevant to society and has no impact on management practices. Even worse, it has been suggested that their research has a negative impact, because “bad management theories are destroying good management practices” (Ghoshal, 2005). And so for a growing number of management researchers, investigating efficiency, performance, and competitiveness is no longer the powerful source of meaning and identity that it once was. The Grand Challenges concept can address the unease and anxiety researchers experience amid growing pressure to make a positive contribution to society, and it can instill meaning in their work. I would argue that it is helping management scholars to feel less compelled to work on the presumably “small challenges” of firm performance and success. Instead, they are investing their time and mental focus in tackling “big” questions to contribute to a greater good that goes beyond the narrow focus of self-interest and profit maximization. This therapeutic function of the Grand Challenges concept, which must not be overlooked, will probably prove most powerful in the early stage of its life cycle because the concept’s current breadth and diversity are what give it its curative properties. In this initial stage, a narrower and more methodologically rigorous concept would resonate with fewer people and offer fewer possibilities for meaning and identification.

The Next Decade of Grand Challenges Research

What might a research agenda on Grand Challenges in the next stage of the life cycle look like? In discussing this issue, Christian and his coauthors actually seem to end up embracing the role of validity police, making useful points that indicate how the clarity and validity of the Grand Challenges concept can be improved. For instance, they suggest specifying “the analytically important and causally competent shared attributes” to guide empirical analysis and develop valid knowledge claims about Grand Challenges. They predict that describing these attributes will be important to distinguish the concept from related but conceptually distinct phenomena. The points they make about classifying Grand Challenges suggest to me that developing taxonomies (classifying Grand Challenges based on shared attributes) and typologies (theorizing different types of Grand Challenges by integrating distinct conceptual dimensions) could add nuance and granularity to the Grand Challenges concept, preparing the field for cumulative theory building. And they demonstrate that identifying scope conditions—that is, addressing where, when, and to whom the Grand Challenges concept is applicable—will also be important.

To add to these promising directions in which the Grand Challenges concept could be taken, in my view, a worthwhile area of future research relates to the analysis of tensions in the context of Grand Challenges, as well as to an explicit focus on the fact that different actors have different and conflicting needs, expectations, and aspirations, which creates collective action problems. The idea of addressing Grand Challenges may also mean very different things to different actors: some may approach them via a win-win approach, whereas others may apply a trade-off logic. The discrepancy between the short-term focus prevalent in many companies and the long-term interest of society-at-large (including future generations) further complicates the picture and requires deeper theorizing.

There also seems to be promising in conceptualizing Grand Challenges as a multilevel construct to acknowledge that they and the obstacles to successfully addressing them are likely to operate at multiple levels of analysis. For instance, barriers to the implementation of measures designed to tackle Grand Challenges may reside at the individual level, including employees’ preference for maintaining the status quo and their resistance to organizational change. At the organizational level, studying group-level constructs such as organizational culture and organizational identity seems potentially relevant, as does analyzing structural inertia and the influence of taken-for-granted rules, roles, scripts, and routines in organizations. Finally, at the institutional or systems level, researchers need to focus on how regulation and the wider societal system affect organizational and individual behavior, and thus the tackling of Grand Challenges.

Grand Challenges at HEC Lausanne

At HEC Lausanne, our embrace of the Grand Challenges concept has extended to incorporating it into the title of the new research center that we founded at the start of this year. To be honest, deciding on a name for the new center was not easy. In the end, we settled on Research Center for Grand Challenges in part for the very same reason the Grand Challenges concept has proliferated so quickly in the academic domain: we hope the active and growing debate on Grand Challenges can lend the new center legitimacy and visibility. In addition, the ambiguity of the Grand Challenges concept is beneficial because it allows colleagues from different departments to communicate and coordinate around a common theme. (I am not sure whether the center will have a therapeutic effect on faculty, but we shall see!)

The primary goal of the HEC Research Center for Grand Challenges is to generate research collaborations across the different departments of HEC, develop an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the study of Grand Challenges, and disseminate research insights among the business community and society at large. The center also features an innovative research platform that matches scholars based on their research ideas and needs.

Academics and practitioners alike are discussing the Grand Challenges concept, meaning it represents an opportunity for these communities to establish common ground and learn from each other. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have made Grand Challenges tangible in both government and business circles and reduced the number of empirical referents and phenomena discussed under the Grand Challenges concept. At the center, we use the SDGs to structure and communicate our activities. In addition, activities are structured around the ten HEC departments, leading to a matrix organization that is beneficial not only for internal coordination purposes but also for external stakeholders. Journalists, for instance, can access the center’s website and use a filter function to identify experts working at the intersection of a given SDG and department.  

We are confident that the broadness of the Grand Challenges concept will be instrumental to initiate research collaborations across the different departments of HEC Lausanne. The departments are grounded in different disciplines, which are informed by different methodological conventions and ontological and epistemological assumptions. Often such differences may appear irreconcilable, but an umbrella concept such as Grand Challenges can function as a bridge and focal point around which research collaborations can be pragmatically structured—despite the disciplinary boundaries that are common in a business school. In this view, the Grand Challenges concept enables work that considers insights stemming from multiple perspectives. This pragmatic approach allows the theoretical and empirical scope of management research, one of the key things Christian and his coauthors advocate, to be broadened.

We shall see whether the HEC Research Center for Grand Challenges will thrive. And time will tell whether the Grand Challenges concept will enter a new stage in its life cycle as a result of the work of the “validity police” and a scrapping of the concept’s surplus meaning. The term Grand Challenges does currently convey a broad umbrella concept, but the ambiguity this causes seems useful and enriching at this early stage of concept development. So why retire a youthful idea?


  • Patrick Haack

    Patrick Haack is a Professor of Strategy and Responsible Management in the Department of Strategy, Globalization and Society at HEC Lausanne, University of Lausanne. He also serves as the Director of the HEC Research Center for Grand Challenges.

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