Business leaders know how to go about transforming their companies to seize opportunities or meet major challenges — even if that’s easier said than done. But they must also contend with threats that lie far beyond any company’s control and that require whole industries to be transformed. How can one organization even begin to attempt to solve a complex global problem like climate change, food insecurity, deteriorating infrastructure, or economic inequality?
The answer is to create networks of organizations that can act together to reach common goals. But to make any real headway on solving problems of this size, coalitions have to be both big and effective. And motivating dozens or even hundreds of organizations to work together — and making sure their work makes a difference — is extremely difficult when no one is clearly in charge.
Orchestrating this kind of collective effort is possible. A single organization can serve as a catalyst, and a small group of organizations can drive a much wider network of change. But this requires a new scale of leadership: system leadership.
An example of system leadership can be found in the food industry, where an initiative that began with 17 food and agribusiness companies grew into a global network of 500 organizations taking action in 19 countries.
The companies recognized that many of the problems in the agriculture industry — such as low productivity, resource scarcity, and market volatility — posed threats to their businesses and were likely to intensify as demand for food increased along with the global population. Any solutions would depend on diverse stakeholders — such as governments, companies, farmers, investors, and NGOs — who in many cases had a history of conflict or distrust. Many of these groups were taking action on the issues at hand, but with little coordination their efforts were often fragmented or duplicative.
The group of companies held intensive discussions with stakeholders and experts to develop a collective understanding of the challenge and potential solutions. They agreed on a vision for the future of agriculture which reflected the shared goals and values of their emerging network. The vision resonated with government leaders, who were seeking a constructive way to work with the private sector to attract new investment and technology. With the World Economic Forum serving as a convener and facilitator, groups of stakeholders started working together in both Tanzania and Vietnam. They formed national task forces to accelerate the development of specific commodities or geographic regions.
Additional countries quickly followed suit in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Companies committed specific investments and developed new business models to extend value chains to poor farmers. Governments improved key policies and infrastructure. Donors, NGOs, and farmers’ associations helped farmers sustainably increase production. To date, over $10.5 billion in private-sector investments have been committed, of which $1.9 billion has been implemented, benefiting over 9.6 million farmers.
Although it remains small compared to the total scope of the problem, the New Vision for Agriculture initiative illustrates how a small number of organizations can make a significant impact by mobilizing a network. A Harvard Kennedy School case study on the initiative outlined three steps that enable collaboration on a massive scale and can be applied in any sector.
1. Cultivate a shared vision for change. As a starting point, create a shared knowledge base by jointly mapping and defining the major issues, risks, opportunities, and stakeholders in the system. Building on this understanding, a series of moderated discussions among the key players can help define and create buy-in for a shared vision. The vision plays a unifying role, expressing the shared values and aspirations of all the stakeholders.
2. Empower widespread innovation and action. A broad and decentralized network of activity can be mobilized under the umbrella of the shared vision. Such networks often lack formal hierarchy and depend upon voluntary commitments and incentive-driven action. Stakeholders must define goals that create incentives for action and innovation that benefit both the individual organization and the network, measured by concrete performance targets. Meeting these goals may require new skills and capacities, as well as new financing models.
3. Enable mutual accountability for progress. In a system of informal collaboration and voluntary commitments, accountability is often enforced through “soft” channels – relying on influence, reputation and trust rather than formal legal mechanisms. Maintaining open communication, measuring progress against agreed indicators, and establishing shared governance structures to steer efforts can maintain credibility and trust among diverse partners.
System leadership requires a willingness to take risks and develop new and unconventional alliances at the individual, corporate, and network level.
Individual system leaders serve as champions both inside and outside their organizations – pushing for innovation in a company’s business model, for example, while also building alliances and trust with other organizations in the system. Their maverick approaches require corporate support.
Institutional system leaders are organizations that innovate and drive action both unilaterally and as part of project-based partnerships or broader networks. To play this role effectively, internal organizational change and capacity building are often required.
Interactive system leaders are individuals or groups whose chief task is to mobilize, facilitate, and coordinate the system-wide effort. These groups require skilled staff, adequate funding, and sound strategy driven by senior leaders in the network.
While system leadership sometimes emerges organically, it can be accelerated and strengthened deliberately. Over the long term, individuals and organizations with the skills and motivation to lead systemic change will be better prepared for an increasingly complex and uncertain future.