Collaborate or cooperate? What’s the difference?

More than ever, we need to work together. However, cooperation and collaboration are two different things. A common goal but two ways to get there. Is it my performance or the organization’s that comes first? I explain the difference so that you can choose what is best for your context.

The basics: a shared goal, a common vision

In both cases, the teams are working towards a common goal. This is probably the main challenge to better cooperate or collaborate. What is this common objective, and how is it expressed and shared? Does everyone understand this clearly? In practice, everyone can express the company’s long-term vision and short-term objectives. Everyone can explain how their actions contribute.

There are many techniques for sharing the strategy. Hoshin Kanri offers a two-way approach: top-down and bottom-up to ensure a good alignment of teams.

A major difference: the implementation of the vision

When teams collaborate, they decide in a silo how they will achieve the common goal. They are organized to perform, each independently of the others. They can negotiate certain things together, but each one is mainly looking after their team.

There can be a competitive spirit, when each team seeks to succeed, without worrying about the results of others.

This is how I see most organisation operate: each sector has a budget, objectives and seeks to achieve them. Each sector is judged on its own performance.

When teams cooperate, the team’s goal becomes secondary. A team can make decisions that will hinder the achievement of its team goals, but allow other goals to be achieved in other teams. Performance is measured across the organization.

An example of cooperation/collaboration

To illustrate the difference, let’s take two sports clubs. Their goal is to be the best club in the region. The goal is clear and shared by all.

In the club that collaborates, the coaches discuss and share the field time that is allocated to the club. Each coach works with her team, to provide the maximum chance of winning. The players in each team work very well together.

In the club that cooperates, coaches can make decisions that will cause one team to lose, but ensure victory for another. If a key player on a team is injured, coaches may decide to reorganize teams so that others have a chance to win. Players need to learn how to function well in their team, but also with other teams.

How to collaborate well?

Collaboration requires a common framework. Structure, accountability, performance management are common. Teams can be in a healthy competition because the system is fair.

The fundamental value is trust. The focus is on the team level. Each member of the team works for the success of the team. Each team member trusts their colleagues to help achieve these goals.

How to cooperate well?

Cooperation puts the organization before the team. It is the pride of being part of a group larger than the team that contributes to the success of this model. The performance model prioritizes the result of the organization, over that of the individual or his team.

The core values are solidarity and mutual aid. The focus is on the organisational level. Everyone works to ensure the success of the whole. My own success and that of my team comes after that of the organization. This is the principle of cooperatives.

Do you have to collaborate or cooperate?

There is obviously no right answer and perfect model. I prefer cooperation, but it requires a greater investment of management teams, a change of mindset in many cases and greater organizational maturity.

Collaboration is a first step and can be a stepping stone to cooperation.