Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 43;   November 2, 2022: Collaborations or Cooperations?

Collaborations or Cooperations?

by

Modern products and services are so complex that many people cooperate and collaborate to produce them. Strangely, few of us have given much thought to the difference between cooperating and collaborating. The two do differ, and the differences matter.
Oscar Wisting, a member of Roald Amundsen's party, and his dog team at the South Pole in 1911

Oscar Wisting, a member of Roald Amundsen's expedition to reach the South Pole, and his dog team in triumph at the South Pole in 1911. In the world of European polar exploration, hauling equipment in dog sleds was controversial at the time, even though Arctic peoples had been working with dogs in this way for millennia.

Although most readers of this post no doubt regard dogs as pets and companions, Amundsen and his party viewed their dogs differently. In some sense, they viewed their dogs as friends and collaborators, as willing partners in the effort to reach the South Pole. That the humans killed many of the canines when the task demanded it (as planned) doesn't contradict this view, for the slaughter of the dogs was extremely upsetting to the explorers. But such was the ethos of the day, and the imperatives of the situation. As Amundsen later wrote about the mood of the explorers after the deed was done, "The holiday humour that ought to have prevailed in the tent that evening — our first on the plateau — did not make its appearance; there was depression and sadness in the air — we had grown so fond of our dogs."

The photo is from Amundsen's account of his journey to the South Pole, The South Pole, (now available from Cooper Square Press, but originally published in 1913 by J. Murray). It also appears in Amundsen's autobiographical work, My Life as an Explorer (Doubleday, Page & Company, New York: 1927). The photo is part of the collection of the National Library of Australia.

We often use the words collaboration and cooperation as if they were interchangeable. They are not. They're similar, in that they both denote processes in which multiple people (or entities) work in such a way that their respective efforts are closely related. And from a distance, people who are cooperating and people who are collaborating can seem to be engaged in the same way. But they are not.

To see that the two terms — collaboration and cooperation — have different meanings, we need only reflect on how we use language. For example, within a business unit working on multiple projects, when we mean to refer to a group of people who are collaborating with each other, we can speak of "a collaboration." But when we mean to refer to a group of people who are cooperating with each other, we rarely speak of "a cooperation." Indeed, Microsoft Word, which I'm using to compose this post, indicates a possible grammatical error at every point at which I use the word cooperation in that way.

We do have the noun "cooperative," which means, "an enterprise or organization owned by and operated for the benefit of those using its services." [Mish 2005] But the noun "cooperative" doesn't apply to a group of people who are cooperating with each other within a business unit.

Because we so rarely use the word cooperation as a noun to refer to a workplace group of cooperating people, I feel free to use it in that sense in this post (and the next two) without risking ambiguity. So in this post, when I refer to "a cooperation" I mean a group of people who are cooperating to achieve their various respective goals.

When When we mean to refer to a group of
people who are cooperating with each
other, we rarely speak of "a cooperation"
we assess the performance of people in an organization, we must take care to distinguish cooperation from collaboration. And when we divide the work of a business unit, we must choose carefully between asking people to collaborate and asking those same people to cooperate. When we confuse cooperation and collaboration, we can get disappointing results because those results might differ from what we expect. In the next post I suggest some reasons why such disappointment isn't surprising. To support that exploration, I begin by examining more closely the differences between collaborations and cooperations.

Objective
A collaboration forms when individuals or entities form an alliance to achieve a single shared objective. [Huggett 2018] The members of the collaboration all consider themselves to be co-authors of the work product the collaboration produces.
A cooperation is a loose collection of individuals or entities who are willing to assist each other in achieving their respective individual objectives, or the objectives of others. The assistance they provide might include actual effort, or it might consist of merely adjusting their schedules or shifting responsibilities to accommodate each other.
Identity
Collaborations have defined identities. They have names. They might be categorized as projects, initiatives, skunk works, or strategic partnerships. Some even have their own facilities and financial resources.
Cooperations rarely have names. They are rarely categorized differently from the organizational units that host them. For example, although the people of the Marketing Department cooperate with Engineering in presenting Product X to the market, they do so as a consequence of their functional responsibility, rather than as a consequence of belonging to a cooperation with a defined identity.
Origins
Collaborations usually form by intention. They often happen when people recognize a need and acknowledge that they cannot meet that need acting alone. The prospective collaborators know what the missing pieces are, and they seek others who can provide those pieces. When they find willing partners, the collaboration is formed. Custom within the collaboration resolves any resource usage conflicts.
Cooperations don't form by intention, and we rarely recognize them as entities. The people of a cooperation just go about their business without actively obstructing each other. When there is a conflict about the use of some resource, the affected parties negotiate shared use. When one member of the cooperation needs something from another, they negotiate a resolution. When cooperation breaks down, and negotiations fail to resolve resource usage conflicts, organizational hierarchy prevails. When one member achieves his/her/its objective, that member might adopt a new objective, or withdraw from the cooperation, or move on, while the other members of the cooperation press on toward their objectives. If there is a shared recognition of success, the credit goes to the hosting organization, rather than to the cooperation.
Lifecycle
Collaborations have inception dates and termination dates. They usually persist continuously between those dates, but some collaborations experience suspension and resumption. Terminations usually coincide with achieving their objectives, which might be delivery of a working system, successfully executing some action, or issuing a final report. Early terminations are possible. In some cases, collaborations can be reorganized into new or existing collaborations.
Because cooperations lack identities, they also lack inception dates and termination dates. Many persist indefinitely, though they might vary dramatically in their effectiveness over their lifetimes.
A vision that transcends operations
A collaboration is an alliance of individuals or entities working to achieve a single shared objective. For example, the carpenters, electricians, and plumbers working on constructing a house form a collaboration. They share a coherent vision — they understand that they're building a house. They must cooperate to do this. But because the unexpected is inevitable in such activities, from time to time they must collaborate to modify the vision to make it achievable.
For cooperations to be effective, their members must share an understanding of what effectiveness is. They must agree to adjust their activities from time to time to enable the cooperation to operate smoothly. For example, the staff of your local public library performs various tasks as required by their customers. They all agree on an operational vision: they provide service that meets certain performance goals to serve the community. They provide that service by cooperating with each other. But the cooperation itself requires no more elaborate vision regarding its objectives.

Last words

The differences between collaborations and cooperations manifest themselves in a range of indirect effects. For example, many performance management systems include standards that encourage cooperative behavior. They also include standards intended to encourage high performance within the collaborations people are assigned to. At times, efforts to meet one standard conflict with efforts to meet another. That is, within a collaboration, it's possible to place your own performance at risk by extending yourself to cooperate with members of another collaboration. This tension, coupled with pressure for high individual performance, can cause people to place cooperation at lower — or lowest — priority.

In Part II of this exploration I examine the risks associated with confusing collaboration with cooperation.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Cooperations That Need to Be Collaborations  Next Issue

Great Teams WorkshopOccasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience is rare. In part, it's rare because we usually strive only for adequacy, not for greatness. We do this because we don't fully appreciate the returns on greatness. Not only does it feel good to be part of great team — it pays off. Check out my Great Teams Workshop to lead your team onto the path toward greatness. More info

Footnotes

[Mish 2005]
Frederick C. Mish, ed. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2005. Back
[Huggett 2018]
Jon Huggett. "Why Collaborations Fail," Stanford Social Innovation Review, (June 4, 2018), Available here. Retrieved 17 October 2022. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

FightingDangerous Phrases
I recently upgraded my email program to a new version that "monitors messages for offensive text." It hasn't worked out well. But the whole affair got me to think about everyday phrases that do tend to set people off. Here's a little catalog.
Glow of lava reflected in steam plume east of Kupapa'u Point, on the Big Island of HawaiiWhen Meetings Boil Over
At any time, without warning, you can find yourself in a meeting that boils over. Sometimes tempers rise, then voices rise, and then people yell and scream. What can a team do when meetings threaten to boil over — and when they do?
A forest glenGames for Meetings: I
We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized games. Here's Part I of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we can do about them.
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
An empty officeAnticipating Absence: Why
Knowledge workers are scientists, engineers, physicians, attorneys, and any other professionals who "think for a living." When they suddenly become unavailable because of the Coronavirus Pandemic, substituting someone else to carry on for them can be problematic, because skills and experience are not enough.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
Tuckman's stages of group developmentAnd on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.