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strategy and business
 / Summer 2006 / Issue 43(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Megacommunity Manifesto

2. Exert strong leadership and presence. The second element critical to effective megacommunity development is leadership. In business, government, and NGOs, it is important for a chief executive or minister to be outspoken and explicit. Each leader has a case to make to others; each leader will have to explain and support the megacommunity’s priorities to others within his or her organization. A corporate CEO, for example, must be able to convince boards and employees to take more responsibility for forms of accountability besides short-term profits. A government agency leader must be able to endorse measures that meet the needs of businesses and civil society. And leaders of all three sectors must be able, as Mr. Switz of ADC puts it, “to stay the course and make a long-, long-, long-term unwavering commitment.”

Leaders in a megacommunity function most effectively in a listening, learning, understanding mode. They must be prepared to view other sectors as potential resources and partners, instead of adversaries, and understand the growing permeability of boundaries between sectors. Says Minister Yeo of Singapore, “The most important first step is understanding the nature of the participants. Each person is complex. Each has a deep nature which you cannot completely change.”

3. Design and customize cross-sector engagement. John Ruggie, the director of the Center for Business and Government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, says: “Life in a world of sustainable globalization is a permanent negotiation.” The design of conversations depends on the culture and predisposition of each megacommunity. Specific events might include full-scale forums where all the participants come together for a day or two, wargame simulations in which people play out the ramifications of difficult decisions, or cascading dialogues in which small groups take on pieces of the puzzle. Agendas need to be both specific in content (with every meeting having an articulated theme) and relatively unstructured in scope, with plenty of informal time in which people can speak openly. Meetings can’t be conducted with the standard “packed-in” conference format of presentations and panel discussions, because the primary purpose of the meetings is to build relationships and help participants develop the ability to work together. That ability will atrophy if people only hear each other’s formal speeches.

Such conversations may seem unfamiliar at first, and many business and government leaders employ specialists to conduct and manage them. There are, after all, many barriers to success. Cultural and language differences exist not just across geographic distance, but among the public, private, and civil spheres. A word like profit can connote “resources for investment” to businesspeople and “exploitation” to a government minister or long-standing NGO executive. A word like bureaucracy can be a positive, negative, or value-neutral term. An enterprise that is “global” to one leader may be “planetary” to another and “multinational” to a third.

Participants gradually bridge such boundaries by learning, as dialogue expert William Isaacs has suggested, to “suspend” their assumptions — not to mask them, but to voice them dispassionately and allow them to be visible to all, as if suspended on a platform in the middle of the room. Conversations should be conducted among all levels of participating organizations, starting with the top leaders but including middle-rank managers and employees, who should be given the time to work on collaborative projects with their counterparts from other groups.

4. Launch experiments, learn from them, and collectively monitor progress. The final capability critical to megacommunity development concerns results. The initiators of a megacommunity need to develop their own model of effective action. Inevitably, they get involved in mutual projects. In other contexts, cross-sector collaboration is often plagued by a lowering of standards; participants bring less rigor to the process (including defining objectives, monitoring results, and managing the work) than they would in an internal project. But in an effective megacommunity endeavor, there is explicit agreement up front on what participants hope to accomplish, what they expect to see, and how they will judge success. A leader should ask his or her fellow leaders: If we do the right thing, what kinds of indicators might we expect to see? Will we see improvements in water quality? In revenues? In levels of community engagement? It is also very helpful, after an action, for participants to reflect together on the results and how they might have done better, and on the complementary ways that they can build one another’s skill bases.

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  1. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations That Matter (Berrett-Koehler, 2005): Megacommunity-oriented methodology.
  2. Amitai Etzioni, From Empire to Community: A New Approach to Industrial Relations (Palgrave, 2004): The founder of communitarianism posits a global society with megacommunity-like qualities.
  3. William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (Currency Doubleday, 1999): Theory and practice for conversations across boundaries.
  4. Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (Random House, 1992): Why political (guardian) and business (trader) leaders routinely misunderstand each other.
  5. Art Kleiner, “Daniel Yankelovich: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Fall 2005: Illuminates the corporate role in broader engagement and the value of dialogue. Click here.
  6. Art Kleiner, “The Dilemma Doctors,” s+b, Second Quarter 2001: Profile of cultural researchers Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner includes a more complete explanation of “universalism.” Click here.
  7. Beth Kytle and John G. Ruggie, “Corporate Social Responsibility as Risk Management,” Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative Working Paper no. 4, March 2005: Strategies for managing the “social risk” that is possible when corporations and civil society meet. Click here.
  8. John Larkin, Ellen Knebel, and Joshua Trevino, “How MNCs Can Fight the War on HIV/AIDS,” s+b, Winter 2004: Corporate role and rationale for getting involved in a highly complex problem. Click here.
  9. George Lodge and Craig Wilson, A Corporate Solution to Global Poverty: How Multinationals Can Help the Poor and Invigorate Their Own Legitimacy (Princeton University Press, 2006): Harvard professor and International Finance Corporation economist propose a “World Development Corporation” to bring the three sectors together on poverty reduction — in effect, through megacommunities.
  10. “Urban Enterprise Initiative” Web page, William J. Clinton Foundation: Site for the former Harlem Small Business Initiative. Click here.
  11. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds. Click here.
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