Are You Collaborating or Cooperating?

I attended an Agile New England event this past week. One of the roundtable facilitators mentioned there was a difference between collaboration and cooperation.

When you collaborate, you work with other people. When you cooperate, you do your work and make sure the work fits with other people’s work.

I thought that discrimination was quite insightful.

I collaborate with my co-authors. We write together. We pair on the same document. We work together at the same time.

Sometimes, when we complete our original collaboration, we cooperate. I have done final edit acceptance for some articles because my coauthor trusts me. Sometimes, the other author does, because I trust him or her.

When Mark and I fold laundry, we collaborate (on getting the clean clothes off the bed and into drawers). When we time when we do the laundry, (I wait to do the sheets and towels until after his bike ride), we cooperate.

I find that when I collaborate with others, I build more of my support system. I can build some support with cooperation, and I find that support can take longer and is not as solid as when I collaborate. Your experience might be different.

When you work closely with people at work, do you each do your own work, cooperating? (Design by contract is a form of cooperation.) Or, do you work together on a chunk of work, collaborating with each other? (Pairing, swarming, and  mobbing are all forms of collaboration.) Are you doing what is best for you, the team, and the project? (How can you know what is best?)

We need to collaborate and cooperate. I like this distinction and I hope you do, too.

That is the question of the week: Are you collaborating or cooperating?

2 thoughts on “Are You Collaborating or Cooperating?

  1. Tomas

    Hi Johanna,

    very interesting difference, never thought about it that way. Usually, when doing some product development work, I have found that collaboration works for me. Perhaps because I like to work with others, share my ideas, insights and create a solution together. When doing some real programming (coding) work, I also prefer collaboration – pair programming. I have found it to help me learn much more quickly and make fewer mistakes and better coding constructs.

    However, there are situations where I’d prefer cooperation over collaboration. For example, if I am doing a presentation (or something similar), I have found it more useful to agree on some key points (to ensure the results from different people fit together) and than work a little more separately. This has definitely a lower level of engagement, but for some types of work (at least for me) has the advantage that I can concentrate on the work and think about it on my own.

    I have one final point to make: I believe that collaboration is a key if you are a leader and want to build a leader – leader environment. When I was leading a team some time ago, I was never doing it on my own, I always tried to collaborate with others. For me, that worked, because we were able to make much better decision as a group. But for many people, this was strange, as they did not expect the leader to collaborate. They expected the leader to tell them what to do.

    1. johanna Post author

      Tomas, you said the magic word, “engagement.” I hadn’t thought of that word when I wrote this and I think it’s a big piece of the puzzle. The more you want people to engage with you, the more you want to collaborate. If engagement doesn’t matter that much, cooperation is fine.

      You have the servant leader mindset when you discuss collaboration as a leader. Makes sense to me.

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