Collaboration vs. Cooperation. There Is a Difference.

As business continues to globalize and our industry becomes increasingly complex, lots of people are talking about collaboration. It's often a client mandate and agency imperative, though sometimes it feels like just a price-of-entry buzzword that people say because they know they're supposed to. Marketers use collaboration as a way to solve thorny, global problems (and occasionally to bring in other partners -- thinking that there's always a better idea out there). Agencies try to prove they can do more for clients, and operate in a flatter world where the command and control culture is obsolete.

But collaboration isn't a buzzword or a fad; it's an essential part of how we need to operate to be successful in today's world. As Jeremy Roschelle and Stephanie D. Teasley point out in The Construction of Shared Knowledge in Collaborative Problem Solving, while many people talk a good game about collaboration, most are just cooperating. Here's the difference:

Collaboration is a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem.

Cooperation is accomplished by the division of labor among participants as an activity where each person is responsible for solving a portion of the problem.

The reality is that true collaboration is hard -- and it doesn't mean compromise or consensus-building. It means giving up control to other people. It means being vulnerable. It means needing to know when to fall on your sword and when to back down. Collaboration is inherently messy. Great ideas need some tension; otherwise they would be easy to make. And ultimately, there needs to be respect -- of other people's roles, thoughts and what they bring to the table. And there also needs to be trust.

Some of the best collaboration we've experienced has come from broad diversity. Bringing in truly different thinkers, looking outside of the industry, finding people with different belief systems, different values, different walks of life. That type of thinking fosters a true culture of collaboration.

Some ways to think differently about collaboration:

  • Do we have true diversity of thought and have we empowered everyone to participate (including diversity of background, role, experience, etc.)?
  • Is there a hidden bias towards the most senior person's ideas (that's inhibiting true collaboration!)?
  • Are we stretching our team's thinking and encouraging participation from all points of view?
  • Are we just bringing partners to the table, or are we respecting everyone's time and contribution -- giving them credit and ownership?
  • And are we clear around the expectation of roles and outcome -- so people don't participate in a process that's unsatisfying for all?

We've been talking a lot about how to embrace true collaboration. From creating a space that enables it, to people that champion it (like Emma Gilding, who first introduced us to this nuanced idea), to the teams we've built that truly reflect the communities they serve -- it's a muscle that needs to constantly be worked to get stronger. Our goal is that one day collaboration will be completely embedded in our culture and serve as a competitive advantage. That's when we won't need to talk about it. We'll just live it.