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  • Writer's picturesabina strachan

Collaboration or cooperation? What works best for what and when?

collaboration or cooperation - which way?

We often mistake being cooperative for being collaborative. What is the difference between collaboration and cooperation? And when should you collaborate and when should you cooperate?

Collaboration works best when the potential collaborators come together to shape, mould and affect the way to achieve a desired outcome because they have determined that a better outcome would be achieved by working collaboratively.

But it doesn't make sense to seek to be collaborative all of the time to achieve every desired outcome. When you don't need to collaborate but you do need work with others to achieve a particular purpose, then effective cooperation is the way to go.

What is cooperation then?

When two or more people support one another's goals through the sharing of information or resources, they are cooperating.

Cooperation is a mutually beneficial relationship resulting from individual – not collective – effort. If the goal is a shared one, they are also coordinating their efforts.

Teams or networks will have a common purpose and different individuals or subgroups will have different tasks or goals that will contribute to that purpose. Teams need to have a leader and networks need to be coordinated.

Cooperation, coordination and good communication are three key ingredients of good teamwork. Cooperation can sometimes 'stick' through more reactive behaviours and fewer engaged ones.

To 'unstick', good cooperators are ready cooperators. They don't need to wait to be told or asked to share information or resources. They are aware of the needs of others, they refer to plans, they anticipate, and they ask.

So, what about collaboration?

Collaborators may or may not be part of the same team, organisation, school or network – it's all about what's best for the outcome you're trying to achieve.

Collaboration can be challenging because each collaborator must let go of control, allow themselves to be challenged and influenced, and is responsible for resolving differences with each other. There is no leader in a collaborative relationship. And to be successful it needs trust, mutual respect, empathy, will, and the utmost belief in the shared outcome.

When should I cooperate and when should I collaborate?

Two people cooperate because it is mutually beneficial to do so. But you don't have to be working towards the same goal. If you do have a shared goal, in some instances you should cooperate and in others you should collaborate.

Cooperation is the way forward where the issue is less complex or fewer perspectives are needed, there are existing solutions that are fit for purpose, or it is not imperative to find a new solution in a collective way.

Can I sometimes cooperate and sometimes collaborate?

Absolutely. As well as choosing how to best achieve what kind of outcome, you can transition from cooperation to collaboration and vice versa.

It depends on where you're at in a given process, how experienced the group is at a given time, and what kind of buy-in you have to a particular way of working.

  • Let's start with where you're at. If an outcome is best achieved collaboratively, then often a crucial time to work collaboratively is at the outset when you're exploring issues and possible solutions. Workshopping issues and ideas in a collaborative way – particularly if facilitated – is becoming a more accepted method of practice and so it is often easier to get buy-in at this stage.

  • A common pitfall beyond this point is to try and pursue all subsequent tasks or outputs in a collaborative way with the whole group. This is fine where the desired outcome is relatively tightly defined, and the group size and timescales are manageable. But for more complex issues, specific aspects that would benefit from being achieved collaboratively by a subset of the group can be identified. In this scenario, you are cooperating throughout a process and collaborating when it's appropriate to do so.

The next blog stays with the theme of often confused terms – this time collaboration and another 'buzzword': co-production.

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