It is plain to see that the complex problems faced by business and society this century will be incredibly difficult to solve. Business, for example, is contending with the pressures of hypercompetitive markets, increasingly demanding consumers, and an accelerating pace of technological disruption. Society as a whole has even harder problems – climate change, infectious disease, terrorism, traffic, food security, and economic inequality, just to name a few – that are systemic and global in nature.
These problems are too big for any institution – whether it’s a business, a government, or a non-profit – to solve alone. Take the fight against child hunger as an example. All three sectors must work in concert for the system to change: business must develop new, nutritious foods, government must set policies which bolster food access, and non-profits must work on the ground to ensure aid reaches hungry children.
Of course, child hunger is just one example of the many issues that are solvable only if the public, private, and social sectors collaborate.
Because the world’s most challenging business and social problems are too interconnected and complex to be solved by one institution alone, I believe that we are left with two choices. We can either work in siloes and struggle, or, we can learn to work collaboratively across industries and across sectors to solve the biggest problems humanity has ever seen.
Unfortunately, co-creating solutions across sectors – beyond traditional public-private partnerships that are merely funded or operated jointly – is incredibly difficult to achieve for many reasons. Legal structures for collaboration are nascent and governance structures are hard to create. It’s hard to develop effective incentives for all sectors, especially because the shareholder value model is so pervasive in global markets. To add insult to injury, many business leaders and citizens do not even see the value of cross-sector collaboration or believe it is a viable option.
Moreover, even though learning to collaborate across sectors is not a social issue or business issue on its own, it is a critically important challenge because solutions for so many difficult problems require cross-sector collaboration. For these reasons and many more, learning how to work across sectors to solve complex problems, I contend, will be the greatest challenge for the next generation of business leaders.