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.
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.”
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).
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.