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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Chang

Should you be Cooperating instead of Collaborating?

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

Hint: Pragmatic cooperation has its own space in the workplace.

This post is co-authored with Olivia Vick.

Do you find yourself exhausted after a day of work? Are you frustrated with ambiguous tasks and late or no feedback? Day after day are you feeling unmotivated and disconnected from your team and your projects? Many people are recognizing in the work from home environment that your experience and mood at work affect your personal life--which can be both negative and positive.

If you could feel more motivated and happy in your work while delivering better products faster, wouldn’t you want to make the change? One key to this desirable outcome is understanding the difference between cooperation and collaboration, and then making the conversion from cooperation to collaboration.

Let’s get started. Are you collaborating, or just cooperating?

Both cooperation and collaboration involve multiple people working on a single goal. The difference is in how that goal is achieved. Many organizations value the ability of a contributor to work with a team--promoting a self-organizing, collaborative work environment, and inclusive culture. But what do organizations actually mean by “collaboration”? Are organizations really referring to coordinating and cooperative models, not truly collaborative ones? What’s the difference?

Coordination, cooperation, collaboration--each of these is a different way to contribute to a goal, with different expectations and boundaries for contributors. The most salient difference between coordination, cooperation, and collaboration is the level at which contributors progress their respective tasks toward the goal and the extent that they determine the goal itself. Coordination (the basic alignment of tasks) is a basic element that makes both cooperation and collaboration possible, and the real opportunity lies in moving from cooperation to coordination.

Many organizations have mechanistic structures, such as functional, matrix, or divisional models, that encourage the cooperation model. Even purpose-driven organizations using agile expect contributors to work toward a common goal without playing a role in defining that goal.

Cooperation entails following orders and compliance, making it more task-oriented and focused on individual goals. Cooperation can function independently of the relationships in a team; even teams with great connections can get stuck in a cooperative mode. Key components of cooperation include:

  • Specialized roles whereby each contributor is an expert who may be the single person who knows how to do specific work.

  • A ‘Project Manager’ role solely responsible for keeping everyone on-task. This contributor often has a lot of one-on-one emails and conversations around the status of work.

  • An ideation process that is more pivot-focused around specific ideas from individuals rather than collective thinking, often ending with a decision from the highest rank.

The long-term effects of cooperation mode are limited growth, burnout, and longer project timelines, resulting in lower-quality products. Most contributors want to broaden their skill sets and understanding of the full project process, but instead, stuck in siloed cooperation, they get worn out by repetitive work. Businesses cooperative modes are impeded by lack of shared knowledge across teams, which leads to poor capacity utilization. Mere cooperation prevents the connective thinking that happens when teams understand the impacts of their decisions from multiple perspectives of the projects.

You think you’re collaborating-- but you’re not.

Do you feel as though in order to present an idea, it must be a fully complete solution, defensible, and convincing? Do you find that your brainstorming session lacks exploration of proposed ideas? Do you notice others staying quiet and wonder what ideas they might be holding back?

Many interactions under the pretense of “collaboration” involve the above, when we actually fall back on a more traditional cooperative model. In this way of working, each contributor’s proposal has to battle with the proposals of others. The winning proposal has to be fully elaborated and defensible in order to convince the group to adopt it. People ‘cooperate’ through agreeing to disagree or through challenging one another’s ideas, often perpetuating the ideas of the highest paid person (HIPPO) or squeaky wheel rather than a joint idea that results from collective thinking. Even though this can sound negative, cooperation can be okay, and sometimes necessary when adapting to our circumstances. But how can you recognize which mode fits the circumstance?

The opportunity to make real collaboration work is frequently blocked by external reasons: budgets, time constraints, existing staffing models, legacy paradigms. Regardless of external constraints, we can still make choices in our own actions to create moments of joy of work and freedom. It all starts with recognition: of our situational limitations, but also of our own internal reasons that might be holding us back--fear of public failure, lack of acceptance, imposter syndrome, insecurity, and self-doubt. This is an opportunity to become better collaborators and better cooperators--and when the time comes, we are better able to recognize when it’s right to rely on cooperation.

When should you rely on cooperation?

In a rose-coloured world, we would always collaborate and the pressures of real life that cause “self-sabotage” would remain at bay. We’d all have perfect knowledge, infinite patience, and the comfort of speed-to-market--the winning conditions for collaboration, rather than mere coordination or cooperation.

But we live in the real world with a finite amount of time and energy. Being an idealist at heart and a realist in life requires boundaries, patience, and timing. Even so, sometimes cooperation is the best possible outcome. People are recognizing in 2020 that while we continue to strive towards personal growth and professional excellence, we should consider our circumstances, taking special care of mental health when considering when and how to cooperate and collaborate.

Here are three situations where cooperation may be the best possible outcome:

Situation 1a: Is your home environment creating fatigue?

The year 2020 has impacted not only the way we work but also the way we live. Many people are juggling working from home, virtual schooling at home, in addition to just living at home. Collectively on any given day, we are dealing with big uncertainties like the state of the world at large, staying healthy, worrying and caring for our loved ones, and job security. And even for the privileged, there are feelings of guilt, malaise, and ennui that stem from an inability to help and support others.

Day after day, those feelings and home conditions can build up, draining energy that you would need to actively collaborate with others. Even a daily litany of virtual conference calls can cause emotional wear. Knowing your own state of mind, energy levels, and overall well-being is self-care.

Cooperation can be one way of taking care of yourself.

What if you do have the bandwidth for more interactive co-contribution, but at work you seem to be running into taciturn and reserved colleagues?

Situation 1b: Is your work culture rigid?

Collaborative efforts require cognitive flexibility and an environment to enable it. Some pre-conditions for collaborative work environments are valuing transparency, radical candor, and openness to different ways of thinking. Unfortunately, these values are not ubiquitous to all organizations.

Consider your organization’s culture and structure, its existing norms of communication, and the incentives and interactions that facilitate the flow of work. Often, organizations with hierarchical or functional structures create silos that cause challenges with communication, especially when it is interdepartmental. Additionally, if your organizational structure, communication, and incentives emphasize individualism over a collective goal such as with teams and products, it is likely that the way work gets done is also reflective of that formality. With that individualism, challenges around diversity and inclusion can become more pronounced, with resistance to the candor necessary for collaboration. Many contributors experience resistance to collaboration when asking questions, providing alternative ideas, and suggestions for improvements. Resistance in its many forms can include explicit behaviors such as talking over (or past) others, promoting models and behaviors that are heroic, or implicit behaviors like internal politics and expressing discomfort to leadership rather than directly as feedback. As Melvin Conway puts it: “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization's communication structure.

Continuing to push for more inclusive collaboration of ideas and joint productivity in this environment can feel isolating and dejecting. Worse yet, it can be considered harmful, even negatively affecting your career path. If your organization exhibits classically rigid processes that promote coordination and cooperation over collaboration, you can shift your strategy to favor individual impact and adapt to the established cooperative model. Find others like you who value an inclusive culture of sharing ideas, co-contribution, and believe in the impact of collective goals.

By definition, cultures are collective; as an individual or a group of individuals you have the ability to change culture via grassroots efforts.

Situation 2: How much influence do you have in your organization?

In many organizations, conference rooms, conference calls, and other official channels are dominated by the loud voices or highest paid person. But standing on a soapbox orating in privileged airtime isn’t collaboration, and not all leaders truly want to make that change. Leading change requires addressing change at all levels. When you are hampered by your leadership, cooperation might be necessary, but it doesn’t need to be a complete substitute for collaboration at a grassroots level.

As much as organizations espouse their values in hallways, zoom backgrounds, or on their websites, real culture and values are felt and lived by contributors. Titles aren't the only mechanism for influence. No matter where you are in an organization, you can be influential through your relationships with colleagues. As we’ve learned from Google’s Project Aristotle, “The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.”

As an individual you can create interactions of psychological safety-- that connection can lead to being respected and being persuasive, which can also progress ideas.

Regardless if you have a greater purpose in mind, or if you simply believe in better outcomes through real collaborative work for those you work with, you can cultivate interactions that perpetuate the collaboration you value.

Situation 3: Where are you in the product development process?

Making sure that products are maintainable and sustainable requires collaborative efforts: products require multiple expertises and perspectives in order to properly vet value and feasibility over the product’s lifecycle. Organizations that are continually focused on short-term goals tend to create reactive solutions that can lead to long-term problems. This in turn encourages ‘a business of busyness’ rather than valuing the thoughtful, thorough work of collaboration that considers productivity over lifetime value. Often “planning” occurs when dependencies are discovered much later in the execution due to lack of any high level feasibility vetting which would occur in earlier stages.

If your team is purely focused on productivity and execution, you may be stuck in a cooperative model.

Further, cooperation may be the more pragmatic choice because of timing concerns: any above and beyond delivery pressure as well as perceived or real imminence to product launch can require strategically minimizing the more open-ended collaborative process. A product that is nearing launch or go-to-market--making it very difficult to institute substantial changes--is also likely to favor coordination and cooperation due to real sunk cost and sunk cost fallacy. (For different products the challenge of changing something so close to launch can look very different.)

Cooperation can sometimes be the pragmatic choice, if situations are limiting organizational change and shared growth. Collaboration needs to be correctly fostered in order to see the benefits, and there can be delays in achieving a collaborative culture. Choosing among Coordination, Cooperation, or Collaboration depends on the situation: your personal circumstance, your work culture, the situations of those you interact with. Evaluate your situation and decide which model is best for the moment, looking forward and thinking about moving toward collaboration when and how you can.

Your energy (consider time + capacity + emotion + intellect) is the most valuable commodity. Pick and choose the opportunities in which you invest it.

You’ve made it to the end of this post, thanks for sticking around!

  • It’s 2020, take care of yourself and your loved ones.

  • Recognize the environments that you’re in and tread lightly when you need to.

  • Collaboration opportunities may not be formal. Find people you want to collaborate with either at work, in your network, or in your community. (Like the coauthors of this post!)

  • There is an african proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go by yourself. If you want to go far, go with others.” Together, we can do better. To find out how to do better, read our next article!

Look for our next post where we’ll be discussing how to influence the conversion from cooperation to collaboration.



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