Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 45;   November 16, 2022: Collaborations That Need to Be Cooperations

Collaborations That Need to Be Cooperations


Modern products and services are so complex that many people cooperate and collaborate to produce them. When people are collaborating but the work actually requires merely cooperating, risks arise that can threaten the success of the group's efforts.
FZSoNick 48TL200: sodium-nickel battery with welding-sealed cells and heat insulation

FZSoNick 48TL200: sodium-nickel battery with welding-sealed cells and heat insulation. Using molten salt to store energy is not an approach most people would recognize as a battery. But the device offers both high energy density and high power density, just what's needed for grid energy storage. Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported by RudolfSimon, courtesy Wikimedia.

When we think of collaborating and cooperating as similar, and then fail to appreciate their differences, we risk giving too little thought to how we organize work groups, business units, or even entire enterprises. As a brief reminder, 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 individual objectives, or the objectives of others. The assistance members of a cooperation provide each other might include actual effort, or it might consist of merely accommodating one other.

Collaborations are more effective than cooperations when there is a single shared objective. Cooperations are more effective than collaborations when there are multiple relatively independent objectives, especially when those objectives aren't synchronized.

A case of choosing to be less collaborative

For example, Collaborations are more effective than
cooperations when there is a single
shared objective. For multiple objectives,
cooperations are more effective.
consider the case of MoPower, Inc., a (fictional) company that provides battery-powered equipment to the home market — leaf blowers, snow blowers, lawn mowers, and so on. To date, MoPower engineers have operated as a collaboration, which worked well because the batteries were so similar in size and capacity from product to product. The power required by a particular appliance drove the rest of the design of the appliance. A collaborative approach worked well for MoPower, because the different devices shared so much in common.

MoPower has decided to enter the market for battery-based storage of renewably sourced electric power. This market differs from the mobile equipment market in three ways. First, battery weight and size per watt-hour stored are less important in this market than in the mobile market. Second, the energy storage required is much greater, and more variable from product to product. And third, MoPower is providing only the battery, not the entire piece of equipment. Strategic partners provide the rest of the product.

In this new market, a cooperation-based approach is more workable, because there is so much variation from offering to offering. MoPower must confront the need to change how it approaches product design, manufacture, and support.

Five risks

To help MoPower decide how to structure its engineering work, let's examine five examples of the risks of using a collaboration-based approach to perform work intended to achieve a stream of loosely related objectives.

Risk of binary thinking
Binary thinking, also known as "black-and-white thinking," is an approach to considering a situation in terms of only two options. [Brenner 2002] For workplace situations (and many others) binary thinking is usually harmful, because most situations worthy of consideration cannot be reduced to just two options. Restricting consideration to two options almost certainly eliminates important alternatives. But people find binary thinking more comfortable because it seems simpler, at least superficially, than a more nuanced approach.
Binary thinking is sometimes described as 'thinking in absolutes," or "all or nothing" thinking. I avoid these terms because they're too specific. There are many more ways to reduce a situation to two possibilities — more ways than absolutism or all-or-nothing. Indeed, using the term "all or nothing" to denote binary thinking is itself an example of binary thinking.
MoPower is at risk of binary thinking because the entire engineering workforce is accustomed to working as a collaboration. The risk is that MoPower might approach this issue as a choice between two process models — full collaboration and full cooperation. A more useful approach might include collaboration for some products, and cooperation for a collection of other products.
Risk of zombie collaboration
Zombie collaborations arise when a collaboration has failed to achieve (or will never achieve) its objective, but it hasn't yet been terminated. This can occur for many reasons, but one way for groups to arrive at this stage of their lifecycles is for the work to be incomplete with the market window already closed or about to be closed. The collaboration continues its work, but the people of the collaboration are unaware that they have failed. A second path to the zombie stage of life is entering into a new market, as MoPower is doing.
The members of a zombie collaboration need to end the collaboration, or retarget it, or adopt a cooperation configuration aimed at different goals. One goal worth pursuing: find new goals. Another: learn how to avoid this situation in the future.
Risk of political distortion
When a group is configured as a collaboration, political power tends to align along the direction of the collaboration. Those with strengths aligned with the single shared objective of the collaboration tend to derive political power from that alignment.
But if the group adopts new goals that actually require cooperation, the political power of the collaboration-aligned individuals can limit their willingness to cooperate with anyone whom they regard as less politically powerful. Cooperation tends to remain out of reach until the group reconfigures itself — and the power alignments within it — so as to rank the former goal of the collaboration closer to parity with the newly adopted goals.
Risk of suppressed objectives
A group that regards itself as a collaboration likely has a single shared objective, clearly stated and supported by all. Or at least it believes it does. To maintain focus, it acts to suppress or defer ideas that bubble up from time to time. This is healthy if the group is indeed a collaboration.
But maintaining a collaboration orientation when cooperation is required can prematurely narrow the focus of the group as it reconfigures itself. This can lead to a chain of failed restarts. In another failure mode, the collaboration remains fixed on its original objective, even when that objective is no longer achievable, or no longer worth achieving.
Risk of sticky identity
When the context changes, the collaboration might need to revise its objective. In some situations, a single shared objective cannot be identified. The group must pursue multiple objectives, and that must be done as a cooperation.
But the well-defined and well-developed identity of the group can adhere to it even when the group has decided to move on. The identity can become "sticky."
To move on, the group might need to break its connection with its former identity — to rebrand itself. This can be difficult to accomplish for an internal entity. Reorganization can provide a way to retire the old identity and introduce a new one that can support a cooperative approach to new objectives.

Last words

Few business units choose consciously to work together as a collaboration, on the one hand, versus a cooperation on the other. Many would do well to review regularly their current configurations for suitability. And some might find that it's best to be a collaboration at one level of the organization, but a cooperation at a deeper level, or vice versa. Examine the configuration of your workgroup with an open mind. Then choose consciously. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Avoiding Speed Bumps: I  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Brenner 2002]
Richard Brenner. "Think in Living Color," Point Lookout blog, June 26, 2002. Available here. Back

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