I am Collaborating…No I am Cooperating…Which is it?

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Is Cooperation the Same as Collaboration?

Collaboration is one of the terms used on a daily basis both in the office and in the business press.  We attend meetings and collaborate with our colleagues.  We collaborate with our leaders.  We collaborate,  collaborate, collaborate.  But are we really collaborating?  Some common definitions of collaboration vs cooperation are below.

  • Collaboration is working together to create something new in support of a shared vision.
  • Cooperation is important in networks where individuals exchange relevant information and resources in support of each other’s goals, rather than a shared goal. Something new may be achieved as a result, but it arises from the individual, not from a collective team effort.

Lets use an example.  I attended a meeting this week with a group of my peers.  There was a leader of the meeting who drove the agenda.  That leader came into the meeting with an agenda around how we were to pull together topics for our user group.  It was her agenda and goal.  The meeting consisted of us building a list of action items and then divvying up the action items.  We each focused on our areas of expertise.  Is this collaboration? I would say no, this is cooperation. When people cooperate, they work together on common, but different  goals.    

When collaborating, people work together (co-labor) on a single shared goal.  Like an orchestra where everyone plays their own instrument, they play not only for their own sake, but to help make something greater.  

All of the managers I have worked with are cooperative, friendly, and willing to share information.  The part missing is the ability to align goals, ideas with others in real time.  When collaborating, we need to:

  • Agree to the common shared goal
  • Understand the ideas of others objectively
  • Make tough decisions,  that are good for the shared goal, even if they are not good for our individual needs.
  • Make these tough decisions, together, as a group.

According to Harvard Business Review “it takes much more than people being willing to get together, share information, and cooperate. It more importantly involves making tough decisions and trade-offs about what and what not to do…”

In order to collaborate, we need to let go of control and power.  Collaboration cannot occur in a top-down, control-oriented environments. To collaborate, people need to be empowered to exercise their own judgement for the greater good.  People need to be comfortable giving up control and power for the shared goal.  There must be room for experimentation, failure and learning from mistakes. Collaboration is about people thinking together, valuing each other’s perspective and contributions, in order for creative new ideas to emerge based on a shared goal.

Next time you hear the word collaborate, think through are you collaborating or just cooperating?