Boundary Spanning

Requisite Variety

Our most daunting problems today are growing in complexity. No single actor is able to resolve them by working alone. When the complexity of a problem exceeds our capacity to respond, we are quickly overwhelmed. Solutions need to be as nuanced as the challenges we face. Ross Ashby – an English psychiatrist and pioneer in cybernetics – described this as ‘requisite variety.’ It has come to be known as the First Law of Cybernetics.

“This principle has important implications for practical situations,” Principia Cybernetica observes, “since the variety of perturbations a system can potentially be confronted with is unlimited, we should always try maximize its internal variety (or diversity), so as to be optimally prepared for any foreseeable or unforeseeable contingency.”

Problems like these – and the solutions they require – cross organization, sector and system boundaries. That means, increasingly, we will need to harness diversity in organizations and communities to be able to respond effectively. We will have to capitalize on diverse worldviews, and draw on the full spectrum of human gifts and abilities.

The Millennium Project’s 15 Global Challenges are examples of the daunting challenges that now compel us to work across traditional boundaries.


The Millennium Project. “15 Global Challenges.”


This complexity is not just global. We are also confronted with wicked challenges like these at a local level.

Solutions require a new kind of collaboration in society; notably, between the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.

Growing attention is now being paid to this issue.

The Third Sector

Henry Mintzberg, business thinker and professor of management studies at McGill University, is among those calling for new partnerships that capitalize on the under-valued capabilities of the Third Sector. He uses “plural” to describe the sector – a domain that is neither public nor private. Organizations in this sector have historically been called non-profits, not-for-profits or NGOs. The sector itself has been described as the voluntary sector, the social sector or civil society. It plays a unique and important role in areas unserved by business and government.

Mintzberg argues that we live in a world of extremes [Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal Beyond, Right, and Center]. What we need, he says, is responsible enterprise, government that seeks broad citizen engagement, and open collaboration in civil society.

Not all social initiatives are constructive, Mintzberg says. “The best ones open us up; the worst ones close us down. But at least the former offer a way forward, beyond what we have been getting from many of our established institutions. Responsible social movements and social initiatives, often carried out in local communities but also networked globally for collective impact, are the greatest hope we have for regaining balance in this troubled world.”

Cross-Sector Collaboration

Cross-sector collaboration is growing – notably between the private and not-for-profit sectors. In the 1970s and 1980s, social sector and business organizations began to create new alliances. Early partnerships aimed to improve the quality of life in communities where businesses operated, often in response to regional economic challenges. Partnerships are also being created now by companies seeking to enhance their reputation for corporate responsibility.

Shirley Sagawa and Eli Segal identified three types of exchanges [Common Interest, Common Good: Creating Value Through Business and Social Sector Partnerships]. Philanthropic exchanges are based on corporate donations of volunteers, funds, goods or services. Marketing exchanges associate a company’s brand with a cause or the social values represented by a non-profit organization. In operational exchanges, a social sector organization may supply goods or services to a company, increasing its competitiveness.

Home Depot’s partnership with KaBOOM!, creating a new non-profit organization to build playgrounds in poor neighborhoods; Denny’s support for Save the Children; and McDonald’s alliance with Ronald McDonald House are examples. Ronald McDonald House was not founded by McDonald’s but by Philadelphia Eagles football player Fred Hill, whose three-year-old daughter had leukemia. By 2017, the charity was operating 365 homes in 42 countries and regions around the world.

Traditional sheltered workshops have relied on grants and donations, Sagawa and Segal say. “However, the idea of using market-based approaches to solve social problems took on a new life during the economic boom of the 1990s. These new social enterprises are finding that by giving equal weight to both the social and financial bottom lines, they are better able to choose their own paths.”

In the 1960s, Boeing helped to create a social enterprise in Seattle providing work for people disadvantaged in securing employment. The partnership continues today. Member agencies in the Community Manufacturing Partnership manufacture for the company while providing support for people with disabilities to learn job skills. The partnership produces millions of parts a year for the aerospace and commercial industries.


Mark Gerencser and colleagues from Booz Allen Hamilton wrote Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together to advocate for tri-sector collaboration and present the learning from their work with global leaders to find solutions for deep systemic challenges. They define ‘megacommunity’ as a model of collective leadership where organizations in all sectors work together on highly complex problems that are beyond the ability of any organization to resolve working alone.

“In essence and simply,” the authors say, “what’s affecting most leaders is the fact that problems have reached an enormously new level of complexity. And this new complexity manifests itself on every level, from the local/regional… to the global – where we leap directly into the mire known as ‘geocomplexity.’

Members of a megacommunity need to share a complex challenge, recognize the opportunity for shared impact, and commit to taking joint action. What emerges is a self-organizing network.

“Megacommunities do not thrive on chaos with no clear leadership. They thrive on alignment and optimization. In the initial stages in particular, the network needs some person, group, or sector to precipitate alignment and catalyze latent energies. This will generally take the form of some ‘initiator’ (or group of initiators) doing something explicit to put the elements in place. But that initiator must be prepared to cede this central/initial leadership role as the megacommunity coalesces and grows…” The initiator may come from any of the three sectors – business, government or non-profit.

Rather than maximizing benefits for any single organization, the megacommunity seeks to optimize benefits for the system as a whole. That requires moving beyond stereotypes, and acknowledging the validity of other value systems. Mission, culture, systems and governance structures are different in each sector, and this has historically created barriers to working together.

“In business, skills are generally co-linear with financial rewards, more capitalistic,” the authors say. The skills within the civil society sector, for example within an NGO, are more in line with altruism, while government sector skills are more polemical. And these skill sets result in what might be termed a different ‘language.’ Generally, language is more direct in private sector, more intricate in public sector, and more passionate and idiosyncratic in an NGO.”

Participants in a megacommunity, regardless of the sector they belong to, need to reflect on their interests [Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together]. These include:

  • Underlying drivers of value, impact or earnings for their organization
  • Dependencies on other organizations
  • Strategic risks
  • Global issues that have a direct or indirect impact on their mission
  • Issues of concern to colleagues and peers
  • Issues of concern to partners and suppliers
  • Barriers to achieving their goals

Inevitably, this identifies areas where they need to work with others.

Megacommunities should include ‘weak ties,’ the authors say – groups that do not know each other well or appear to have much in common. While strong ties engage like-minded actors, weak ties reach out more widely, providing access to new information, insights, and ideas. They bring new worldviews, gifts and abilities to the community. They increase requisite variety.