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In a Feb. 20 Kellogg School discussion and workshop, Reginald Van Lee explained how leaders in business, government and nonprofits can work together to solve urgent problems.

‘Megacommunities’ expert shares strategy for confronting global challenges

Booz Allen SVP Reginald Van Lee tells Kellogg students how ‘cross-boundary leadership’ is seeking novel solutions

By Matt Golosinski

2/21/2008 - Tough problems demand tough-minded answers built on new ways of framing issues. And those issues, increasingly, are ones whose complexity demands harnessing the power of business, government and nonprofit organizations.

Such a “tri-sector” approach is difficult to get right, but critical to confront global problems like poverty, environmental crises and terrorism, said Reginald Van Lee, during a Feb. 20 visit to the Kellogg School.

Van Lee, a senior vice president for Booz Allen Hamilton and coauthor of a forthcoming book on “megacommunities” — a public sphere that contains organizations and people who deliberately come together to solve big problems — outlined the strategy that he said was key to managing issues facing global leaders.

“We need to think about problem solving from a broader context,” said Van Lee, head of Booz Allen’s not-for-profit business, who explained how seemingly local challenges can become global ones fast. “All you need is one protester with a sign to show up on CNN.”

More importantly, the problems confronting leaders in all sectors today are often larger than the resources and expertise of any one of those sectors, he said. “There are some issues that are so complex and of such global scope that they transcend individual communities [in the business, government and nonprofit worlds],” said Van Lee, who was named among the top 25 consultants in a 2000 Consulting Magazine ranking. Examples of such issues, Van Lee noted, included health crises like Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and HIV/AIDS, environmental crises like climate change, and security crises such as international terrorism.

With these threats, said Van Lee, “the old way of problem solving no longer works.” Previous strategies involved teams operating from a single perspective within organizational boundaries, having limited openness to other views and agencies. This approach typically sought to maximize narrow objectives while avoiding the kind of cross-boundary and cross-sector collaboration that can lead to breakthroughs. The emerging approach, on the other hand, seeks to mobilize around a shared issue that transcends traditional boundaries to create what Van Lee termed “megacommunities” — an environment that features “the combined resources of business, government and civil society.”

Van Lee was careful to note that megacommunities are not “an advanced form of public-private partnerships” or another name for corporate social responsibility. Rather, he defined the concept as existing within the public sphere in a way that brings together willing participants with sometimes competing objectives who nevertheless find shared ground around a big issue. The relationship among the players may often have a tension as the groups collectively define the parameters of the mutual agenda that Van Lee said was at the heart of a megacommunity. Such arrangements, he added, are only sustainable if the relationship delivers on the mutual agenda of all participants. Success relies on overcoming the organizational and cultural challenges that emerge among those groups.

The stakes are high, said Van Lee, noting the research that he and his team conducted about the hurdles facing leaders today. He quoted American Express Chairman and CEO Kenneth Chenault who said that in multinational corporations “everybody is frozen” by uncertainty in the geopolitical environment, a predicament that appears to overmatch many business executives. Reducing that uncertainty and devising tri-sector approaches to the most serious global problems, said Van Lee, is the goal of the megacommunity strategy.

“The stakeholder networks are more complex today, issues are more highly interconnected and there is uncertainty in decision making,” he said.

After Van Lee’s hour-long presentation and Q&A session, participants engaged in an intensive workshop built around a case study on HIV/AIDS in India and China.

Van Lee’s visit was co-sponsored by Global Health Initiative, a Kellogg School-Northwestern University partnership that draws upon the resources of private industry, the nonprofit sector and academic leadership to address health crises in underserved communities. Students and faculty from the Kellogg Global Initiatives in Management (GIM) Tanzania group were also instrumental in organizing the event. Timothy Feddersen, the Wendell Hobbs Professor of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences and director of the Social Enterprise at Kellogg Program (SEEK) is co-leading the GIM Tanzania excursion in an effort to link SEEK with GHI.