Community approach to megaproblems

A conversation with author Mark Gerencser

Mark Gerencser and his three co-authors did not create the concept of the
megacommunity, where government, business and civil society collaborate to
address complex problems. But with their book, "Megacommunities" (Palgrave
Macmillan, 2008), they have created a primer on how these disparate organizations
can work together. Gerencser and his fellow authors work at Booz Allen
Hamilton Inc. in the government, finance, health care and nonprofit sectors.
They share a belief that no single entity can address AIDS, global warming
and the other complex problems facing the world. Gerencser spoke with Editor-in-Chief Nick Wakeman about the potential for megacommunities.

Q: How did you discover the concept of a

Gerencser: We were actually after
something else when we started. We
wanted to write a book on globalization.
We had seen a lot of globalization efforts
by industry that failed, and we were trying
to understand why that happened.

We talked to over 100 leaders around the
world. It became clear that globalization is
not a problem, but a class of problems that
[we] need a new concept to address.

Other things in that class are weapons
of mass destruction and proliferation,
HIV/AIDS. These big problems: They all
span across the three sectors ? public sector,
private sector and civil society. The simple
fact is that problems that span across the
three sectors need solutions that span across
the three sectors. And yet, we have no construct
that spans across all three sectors.

These megaproblems can't be solved by
government alone, they can't be solved by
industry alone, and they can't be solved by
civil society alone. They have to be solved by
working together, and that's what led us to
the megacommunity approach.

Q: How is a megacommunity different from
a public/private partnership?

Gerencser: It's a
collaborative environment
there is really no
one leader or institution
that is in
charge. But there is
collective leadership.

We found and proved that [collective
leadership] is stronger than a singular form
of leadership. Finally, it is a community
organization that shares resources to solve a
common problem. By our definition, all
three sectors have to be involved.

Q: With no single leader, how do goals get set?

Gerencser: There are leadership roles, but
they tend to be rotating. There may be an initiator
who gets it started, but the initiator
doesn't stay in charge throughout the life
cycle of the megacommunity. At least, that is
what we found.

But it is not a command-and-control type
of leadership.

This is distributive leadership. We are
working on more research on it, but it's quite
powerful. It leverages the power of networks
and broad views that you don't get when you
have singular leadership.

Q: What are some of the barriers to a
megacommunity forming?

Gerencser: People generally don't look at
problems in a larger context, so if people can't
do that, it is hard to get started.

If you can't get the players to the table, that
is a problem. Or if you can't find the overlapping
interests, what is it we can all rally

At some point, you have to move from maximizing
your own interests as an organization or
sector and move to optimizing all three sectors,
which then gives it
longer return.

For companies, it
may mean not taking
the short-term
profit view but taking
the long-term
business view.

Q: What do you hope people take away from
the book?

Gerencser: It's the notion that there's hope
to solve some of these big problems. There
really needs to be a new form of leadership.
Megacommunities have been done, and they
have been shown to be very effective. But
they probably aren't the natural state of our
thinking around leadership.

About the Author

Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.

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