Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 44;   November 9, 2022: Cooperations That Need to Be Collaborations

Cooperations That Need to Be Collaborations


Modern products and services are so complex that many people cooperate and collaborate to produce them. When people are cooperating but the work actually requires collaborating, risks arise that can threaten the success of the effort.
Agricultural silos

Agricultural silos. These structures are used for storing grain. As a metaphor for organizational structures, silos are regarded as being relatively independent of each other. But the silos in this image clearly are not. For example, they share a loading mechanism, parts of which are clearly visible at the top of the line of silos. Not visible are the structures that keep the silos aligned with each other, so as to prevent their shifting from distorting the members of the loading mechanism.

So it is with organizational silos. Although we regard them as independent, and although they often seem to be working at cross-purposes with one another, they are linked, often in ways that are outside the awareness of the people who operate them.

If organizational silos were truly independent their ability to hamper collaboration would be limited, because individuals would be able to collaborate undetected. It's the ability of the silos to monitor activity in other silos that enables them to intervene and stifle cross-silo collaboration. [Serrat 2017]

As I noted last time, we tend to think of collaborating and cooperating as similar — so similar that we use the words interchangeably at times. That looseness does little harm in itself. But trouble can arise in two ways. The first is when we allocate time and resources as if we were collaborating, when we're expected only to cooperate. And the second is when we allocate time and resources as if we were only cooperating, when we're actually expected to collaborate.

Briefly, a collaboration forms when individuals or entities form an alliance to achieve a single shared objective. By contrast, 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 accommodating each other.

An illustration of the risks of confusion

Here's a small illustration of the risks of working cooperatively when collaboration is required:

DataMemes, Inc., is a small (fictional) manufacturer of add-on devices for smartphones. One of their add-ons is an entry into the home-based day trading market. It uses a sophisticated big data analysis package to spot trends in news feeds. It then exploits that information to forecast price movements in financial instruments. Within DataMemes itself, the hardware division (Hardware) and the software division (Software) compete for everything from influencing company strategy to allocating resources. But they do cooperate in a variety of ways, including shared use of the test facility and developing product strategy. Even so, because DataMemes regards itself as primarily a hardware company, Software is viewed mostly as a junior partner.

For DataMemes' customers, both Software and Hardware are critical components. If DataMemes Hardware and DataMemes Software could act as collaborators, they would be more likely to anticipate and respond to trends in customer needs. As things are now, DataMemes market offerings are probably biased in favor of hardware-dependent enhancements such as low cost, high speed, longer battery life, and higher capacity. They are likely biased against software innovations, such as neural networks and applications of artificial intelligence. What customers actually want is a balance of both Hardware and Software perspectives. A collaboration of peers is more likely to recognize this; a cooperation between Hardware and Software with Hardware dominant is less likely to do so.

From cooperation to collaboration

Modern organizations carry out most of their work in groups. We can describe work groups as lying somewhere along a spectrum from cooperation at one end, to collaboration at the other. Most groups lie somewhere between the two poles, and probably move around a bit over time.

There are risks Cooperation is necessary but not
sufficient for achieving a single
shared objective. Success is more
likely when the group adopts
a collaboration configuration.
associated with ambiguity as to where a given group lies on the Cooperation/Collaboration spectrum. And there are also risks associated with individuals misunderstanding where their work group lies on that spectrum. These risks are of two kinds. One set of risks arises when a group needs to be a collaboration, but instead is configured as a cooperation. And the second kind is the opposite: a group that needs to be a cooperation, but instead is configured as a collaboration. In this post, I sketch four risks associated with cooperations that need to be collaborations. What follows are examples of these risks. Next time, I examine collaborations that need to be cooperations.

Four risks

Below are four examples of risks that arise when a group is engaged in work that requires a collaboration, but which is approaching the work as a cooperation. In what follows I use the notation PG to denote the primary goal of the group — the goal that would best be achieved through collaboration rather than cooperation. And I use the notation SG to denote any of the multiple Subordinate Goals that the group is working to achieve by cooperation.

Risk of multiple objectives competing for resources
When a group is a cooperation, and when collaboration is what's needed, the group is in a situation analogous to that of DataMemes in the illustration above. There is a risk that the members of a cooperation might not grasp the importance of forming consensus around a single shared objective that everyone aims for. Instead, multiple competing objectives can persist, with everyone cooperating to some extent to permit the supporters of each objective to work toward their own.
This condition leads to defocusing of the group's attention and resources. The group starts projects but cannot make much progress on them because of resource shortages and schedule conflicts. And in the extreme case, there are many, many meetings because of the large number of projects "in flight."
Risk of not forming a strong identity
Collaborations require a single shared objective. But to develop and maintain a single objective that's truly shared, group members must identify with the whole of the group. An ill-defined group identity — or worse, an ambiguous identity — creates difficulties for groups forming effective collaborations because their members tend to maintain affiliations with other objectives. A group that lacks a strong identity risks remaining little more than a cooperation.
Group members must recognize that cooperation is necessary but not sufficient for achieving a single shared objective. Attaining a single shared objective successfully is more likely when the group adopts a clear identity that incorporates attributes of the objective.
Risk of contention for authorship
Although the group is configured as a cooperation, its people might celebrate as a success the achievement of its primary goal, PG. This celebration could be more elaborate and multi-dimensional than what follows achievement of any of its other goals (the SGs). For this reason, there is a risk of outbreak of contention for authorship of the work that leads to the PG. Everyone with even the dullest political sense might want to claim credit.
Even before the group achieves its PG, contention for credit can evolve into toxic conflict within the group, which can erode the willingness of group members to cooperate. That can reduce the chances of success in achieving the PG or any of the SGs.
Risk of free-riding and social loafing
When a group works to achieve its goals, its members must contribute effort to reach those goals. If the group has multiple goals, there is a risk that some members might withhold effort if they regard it as advancing a goal they see as less worthy than another group goal.
In a collaboration, as compared to a cooperation, such withholding is less likely, for two reasons. First, in a cooperation, there are multiple goals. Because some group members might feel a stronger affinity for some of the SGs than for the PG, they might withhold effort from PG and lavish effort on their favored SG. [Arnold 2012] With regard to PG, this behavior is termed social loafing or free-riding. [Karau 1993]
Second, because there is only one goal in a collaboration, withholding effort from the PG is withholding effort from the group. There is no SG to which to apply that effort. Because withholding is equivalent to withdrawal, withholding is deterred in a collaboration.

Last words

In the next part of this series, I examine some risks associated with operating as a collaboration when the goals at hand are better suited to the attentions of a cooperation. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Collaborations That Need to Be Cooperations  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


[Serrat 2017]
Olivier Serrat. "Bridging organizational silos." Knowledge solutions. Springer, Singapore, 2017. pp. 711-716. Available here. Retrieved 17 October 2022. Back
[Arnold 2012]
Nike Arnold, Lara Ducate, and Claudia Kost. "Collaboration or cooperation? Analyzing group dynamics and revision processes in wikis," Calico Journal 29:3 (2012), pp. 431-448. Available here. Retrieved 15 October 2022. Back
[Karau 1993]
Steven J. Karau and Kipling D. Williams. "Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration," Journal of personality and social psychology 65:4, (1993), pp. 681-706. 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:

A senator rests on a cot in the Old Senate Chamber during a filibusterUntangling Tangled Threads
In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf, illustrated by Milo Winter in a 1919 Aesop anthologyWhy Don't They Believe Me?
When we want people to believe us, and they don't, it just might be a result of our own actions or demeanor. How does this happen?
Symptoms of Stage 5 heat stress in cattleYou Might Be Stressed If…
A little stress once in a while keeps us sharp, but chronic intense stress shortens lives. Stress can build gradually, out of our awareness. Here are some indicators of chronic intense stress.
An adult male mountain lion captured by biologistsThe Myth of Difficult People
Many books and Web sites offer advice for dealing with difficult people. There are indeed some difficult people, but are they as numerous as these books and Web sites would have us believe? I think not.
Magic Lantern Slide of a dog jumping through a hoopJust-In-Time Hoop-Jumping
Securing approvals for projects, proposals, or other efforts is often called "jumping through hoops." Hoop-jumping can be time-consuming and frustrating. Here are some suggestions for jumping through hoops efficiently.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Vulture getting ready to strike a dying prey, KenyaComing March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
Bust of Aristotle. Marble. Roman copy after a Greek bronze originalAnd on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.

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.