Go to HHH home page. Go to HHH home page.


Problems vs. Challenges: Merely semantics or much much more?

A theoretical concept I find particularly interesting is that of linguistic determinism, or the idea that the language we use to describe what we see and sense around us influences how we interpret situations and our role in them. Call it a vase and I might not be able to see its potential as a cup when the rest of my dishes are sitting in the sink dirty. Call it human trafficking and I might not see its urgency as a modern manifestation of slavery.

Here at CIL, we've been in dialogue with our partners and advisors about how we describe the kinds of issues we believe fundamentally require integrative leadership. These issues are novel, emergent, highly complex, and beyond the resources or knowledge of any single discipline, organization, or sector to address. They don't lend themselves to simple or technical solutions. Single-sector actions to address these challenges often bring about unanticipated and unintended consequences.

Many academic articles and educational resources refer to these issues as "wicked problems" or "social messes." Certainly they are wicked in their adaptive nature and messy in their complexity, but you don't have to dig too far into behavioral psychology research to sense that "wicked" and "messy" tend to inspire not fight, but flight.

A more motivating term that has been introduced across multiple disciplines is "grand challenges." A simple Google search shows the use of this term in public health, computing, and engineering. This seems to us here at CIL like a linguistic shift worth considering, particularly when we think about the extent to which our creativity, willpower, and vision for collective action is either constrained or unleashed by how we talk about what we're addressing. As I've had colleagues share with me, "words create worlds."

Certainly no two individuals respond to a term in the same way. We're all influenced by our unique cultures and backgrounds. In fact, among our own staff and advisors we have mixed reactions to the term "grand challenges." (e.g., we describe GRAND ballrooms and GRAND entrances; should we use the same adjective to describe such harmful phenomena as human trafficking or food scarcity or religious conflict as "grand"?) However, we still see value in exploring this as a fresh way to identify the need we see for integrative leadership and to align our language with similar work being done globally.

What do you think? Do you see any potential for this shift in terminology for your work? Are you aware of applications of this term beyond those I shared?

No responses to “Problems vs. Challenges: Merely semantics or much much more? ”

Leave a Reply

Some HTML is permitted: a, strong, em