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Collaboration vs cooperation: is there really a difference? (Spoiler: there is)

By Corey Moseley

8 min read

Collaboration vs cooperation: is there really a difference? (Spoiler: there is)
Illustration by Grey Vaisius

Collaboration and cooperation are two words which are often used interchangeably, especially in the workplace. Both terms are so overused that their distinct meanings have blended into one. They’ve effectively become buzzwords. But contrary to popular belief, they're different!

There’s a small but crucial difference which impacts a number of ways work gets done in organizations, including how people associate their work with the organization’s goals, and how they see their work in relation to their colleague’s.

So it’s worth investigating the actual definitions of these two words. Let’s get right into it.

What is collaboration?

First, let’s define collaboration. Collaboration is when a group of people come together and work on a project in support of a shared objective, outcome, or mission. It’s a photographer working with a designer to create a cover image, or the technology department working with the marketing team to improve their customer journey.

Here’s an example:

You and I work in different departments. You’re the lead developer on the tech team and I’m a senior product designer. We get together to discuss the product we’re working on and decide together that we need to make it more efficient for our users. This is our shared vision for the product. Together we design and implement a major change to the product that accomplishes this. In this respect, we’re co-authors of this particular project. We share credit.

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What is cooperation?

On the other hand, cooperation is when a group of people work in support of another’s goals. It’s a teammate helping you put together your presentation. Or a developer helping explain how to word the technical details in your monthly product email.

The key point to note here is that there isn’t really a shared vision. Collaboration implies shared ownership and interest in a specific outcome. If you and I collaborate on a project, we have shared authorship. Cooperation, on the other hand, could just mean that you've given me help on something I'm working on and that I'm ultimately responsible for.

Why is this important?

The difference between these two terms is important because one term implies ownership by one individual and the other implies co-ownership by two or more individuals—or even by an entire organization. It’s the difference between working on someone else’s project (furthering their goals) and working with someone to achieve a goal which you both share.

In short, it’s a question of ownership. The way your organization frames ownership of projects and goals, it turns out, has a profound impact on your people’s experience within your organization. Collaboration, more so than cooperation, communicates to your people that their work is meaningful and part of a larger group effort. In this sense, each collaborator turns into an equal stakeholder, and gains a sense that they're contributing to something larger than themselves.

This doesn’t mean that cooperation is worse than collaboration, or that it has to be one way or the other. In fact, people working together, especially in larger organizations, sometimes struggle to find shared visions just by the nature of how teams are structured. Sometimes there just isn’t any identifiable common ground. Similarly, people might cooperate on projects that other people are collaborating on. They offer their services but don’t share the same goal, vision, and co-ownership. Both collaboration and cooperation are necessary modes of effective teamwork.

Of course there are some major benefits to finding common ground between teams and implementing changes to ensure collaboration not only happens, but makes sense. The first step is to find and communicate a shared sense of purpose between departments.

Creating a shared sense of purpose

A shared purpose, above all, is the key driver of collaboration. But communicating that purpose and instilling it in people is a massive challenge in and of itself. Collaboration can’t be enforced; it has to come naturally out of a shared interest in achieving goals. Only then can the collaborative process take hold in an organization.

A lot of this will depend on your leaders’ ability to break down divisions between departments and align teams around common goals. This can be done in regular All Hands meetings, quarterly get-togethers, and by frequently celebrating collaborative relationships between teams: holding them up as something all employees should aspire to. Leaders should identify shared visions and acknowledge how teams formed working relationships to make those visions a reality.

But emphasizing a shared sense of purpose isn’t only the work of leaders. It can be done by anyone, either in an official meeting setting or just in casual conversation: “What’s your team working on? Oh, interesting. There’s some overlap with my team. Let’s set up a meeting next week to see how we can achieve that goal together.”

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Collaboration as a process

When people share the same purpose, collaboration happens almost naturally. It’s actually kind of weird! But effective collaboration does require some organization. And even the most collaborative environment will find room for cooperation too.

One way to go about making this happen is to sit down with other teams regularly to find intersections where collaborating makes sense. At Jostle, teams are always getting together in conference rooms to give status reports, express pain points, and figure out how we can help each other achieve shared goals. We've all made it part of our collaborative process to always be exploring the ways we intersect with other teams. On top of that, sharing information is crucial, for both the process and the articulation of shared purpose.

Finding complementary skills between teams is one more way to build the connections necessary for collaboration. Focus on people whose combined skills can handle shared projects and start to build relationships from that. Think of this as exploring a potential partnership that bridges the departmental divide (hopefully taking down any silos with it).

Should you focus on collaboration or cooperation?

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It's a common question that arises when structuring a team or organization. Should you prioritize collaboration or cooperation? The answer is both.

While collaboration may be the more desirable method in certain situations, cooperation is just as important. Cooperation allows individuals to contribute to a project without having to take on a larger role, which can be beneficial for those who have competing priorities or limited resources.

On the other hand, collaboration allows for a shared vision and co-ownership of a project. This can foster a sense of community and meaning within a team, and can be a catalyst for creativity and innovation.

Ultimately, it's important to find a balance between collaboration and cooperation. By focusing too heavily on one method, you may be missing out on the benefits of the other. It's important to assess the needs of your team and project, and adjust your approach accordingly.

In addition, it's important to create a culture that supports both collaboration and cooperation. This can be done by promoting open communication, encouraging cross-departmental interactions, and recognizing and celebrating successful collaborations and cooperative efforts. By finding a balance between the two, and creating a supportive culture, you can create a successful and innovative team.

Collaboration strategies

Here are some strategies that can help foster collaboration in your organization:

1. Encourage open communication

Effective communication is key to successful collaboration. Encourage your team members to share their ideas and perspectives openly and honestly. Foster an environment where everyone's input is valued and considered.

2. Foster cross-departmental interactions

Collaboration often requires input and expertise from multiple departments. Encourage teams to work together and build relationships across departments. This can help break down silos and promote a more collaborative culture.

3. Define clear goals and roles

To ensure successful collaboration, it's important to define clear goals and roles for each team member. This can help avoid confusion and ensure that everyone is working towards the same objective.

4. Celebrate successes

Celebrating successful collaborations and cooperative efforts can help foster a culture of collaboration in your organization. Recognize and acknowledge team members who have worked together effectively to achieve shared goals.

5. Use collaboration tools

There are a variety of collaboration tools available that can help facilitate teamwork and communication. Consider using tools such as project management software, team messaging apps, and shared document platforms to help your team work more effectively together.

By implementing these strategies, you can create a more collaborative and effective team. Remember, collaboration is not just a buzzword – it's a key component of successful teamwork.

Cooperation strategies

Here are some strategies that can help foster cooperation in your organization:

1. Offer support

One of the best ways to encourage cooperation is to offer support. If someone is struggling with a task, offer your help. This can be something as simple as offering to review a document or providing feedback on a presentation.

2. Share resources

Sharing resources is another effective way to encourage cooperation. If you have access to resources that could be helpful to someone else, share them. This could be anything from a book on a relevant topic to access to a specialized software program.

3. Encourage feedback

Encouraging feedback is crucial to promoting cooperation. Make it clear that you value other people's opinions and are open to feedback. This can help create a more collaborative culture where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.

4. Recognize contributions

Recognizing people's contributions is an important part of promoting cooperation. Make sure to acknowledge when someone has gone above and beyond, or has contributed in a meaningful way to a project. This can help foster a sense of community and encourage others to contribute as well.

5. Foster a positive environment

Creating a positive environment is essential to promoting cooperation. Make sure that everyone feels valued and respected, and that there is a sense of teamwork and camaraderie. This can help create a more collaborative culture where people feel comfortable working together.

By implementing these strategies, you can help foster cooperation in your organization. Remember, while collaboration is important, cooperation is equally crucial to successful teamwork. By finding a balance between the two, you can create a supportive and innovative team.

Conclusion

Collaboration and cooperation are not at odds with each other. Rather, they’re two ways of making teamwork happen. And although this article focuses more on collaboration, I want to be clear that these two are often occurring in tandem, depending on the stakeholders involved. A collaborative environment is also simultaneously a cooperative environment.

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