Let's Stop Confusing Cooperation and Teamwork with Collaboration


Collaboration Coordination and TeamworkOften the words collaboration, coordination, and cooperation are used to describe effective teamwork. But they are not the same, and when we use these words interchangeably, we dilute their meaning and diminish the potential for creating powerful, collaborative workplaces.

Collaboration has been a big word in the news lately, most recently due to Marissa Mayer’s explanation of her decision to bring Yahoo employees back to the office: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.”

Mayer’s belief that we work together better when we have real relationships, and that it is easier to build relationships when you have face-to-face contact is not unfounded. Coordination and cooperation is essential for effective and efficient work accomplishment, and some research supports the notion that some face-to-face time makes a big difference.

Mayer’s decision might create better teamwork – cooperation, communication and coordination – but it won’t create collaboration unless she is intentional about creating a collaborative culture.


Collaboration is working together to create something new in support of a shared vision. The key points are that it is not through individual effort, something new is created, and that the glue is the shared vision.

Coordination is sharing information and resources so that each party can accomplish their part in support of a mutual objective. It is about teamwork in implementation. Not creating something new.

Cooperation is important in networks where individuals exchange relevant information and resources in support of each other’s goals, rather than a shared goal. Something new may be achieved as a result, but it arises from the individual, not from a collective team effort.

All three of these are important. All three are aspects of teamwork. But they are not the same!

We can find examples of effective teamwork in all types of environments – sports, military, and even historically in politics (e.g. Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet). All high performance teams have common characteristics. But depending on their purpose and intent, they might rely more on coordination or cooperation than on collaboration.

When is Collaboration Important?

In a network environment, where there is not interdependence, collaboration is not essential to the creative process. Through cooperative sharing of information and resources, creativity emerges through individuals and is hopefully recognized and supported.

However in an interdependent organization, collaboration is the bedrock of creative solutions and innovation.

If Yahoo is to reinvent itself, collaboration will be essential.

Collaboration Will Not Occur By Decree.

Can collaboration occur at a distance? Absolutely, IF (and this is a big IF) leaders are intentional about building collaborative environments, model collaborative leadership practices, and create opportunities to bring people together for occasional face-to-face conversations.

Collaborative leadership is based on respect, trust and the wise use of power. Leaders must be willing to let go of control. Collaboration does not naturally occur in traditional top-down, control-oriented hierarchical environments.

People need the freedom to exercise their own judgment. There has to be room for experimentation, failure and learning from mistakes. And there needs to be an opportunity for people to think together, valuing each other’s perspective and contributions, in order for creative new ideas to emerge.

Subscribe To Jesse Lyn Stoner's Blog

It's free! Enter your email and this weekly blog will arrive in your email box.
Rest assured your email will never be shared. You can unsubscribe anytime.


43 comments to Let’s Stop Confusing Cooperation and Teamwork with Collaboration

  • Understanding the meaning of collaboration is critical. Two quotes:

    …this means bringing diverse groups together to deal with ambiguity and complexity. Leaders must be adept at the use of influence as they will most likely be operating without power and authority over many of the participants. Crossen and Olivera

    Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up. Oliver Wendell Holmes

    I sometimes advocate that we re-frame collaboration as ‘co-creation’. It seems to bring more meaning to those who are not clear on what collaboration means or doubtful about the value of it.

    • Excellent quotes! Thanks so much for sharing them, Alan. I am hopeful there is an increasing desire for collaboration as my post on how to influence without authority has been my most widely read post.
      The Oliver Wendell Holmes quote is lovely and true.

      “Co-creation” is an excellent term. It leaves no doubt about the meaning. Maybe we need to keep changing our language to ensure clarity of the concept as we have a habit of overusing a word until it is so diluted it means almost nothing, and then we dismiss the concept as not worthwhile – one example being the term vision.

  • Excellent and insightful. I have shared your post with my colleagues. We all benefit from brainstorming ideas.

    • I’m glad you found this helpful, D’Anne. And I also appreciate your mentioning brainstorming. It is a very useful technique for both cooperation (where individuals need help to find break-through ideas on how to move forward) and for collaboration (as a first step in getting everyone’s views on the table.)

  • I often cooperate with people I don’t really trust. Real collaboration requires relationship, trust, while cooperation does not. Keep up the good work here, Jesse.

  • Tony Taylor

    Great read! I definitely agree with you here. The word collaboration gets thrown around all to easy. I feel because so much effort is put on teamwork, and many want to make employees feel like a team by emphasizing collaboration, but the initiatives are being handed down from elsewhere.

  • The post got me thinking, aways a good thing. I disagree with the assertion that collaboration does not occur naturally in a traditional hierarchy. In my experience, it happens all the time. People collaborate to accomplish much in traditional organizations. They discover new drugs, build airplanes, make cool cars, and create iPads. Creation and collaboration also happen in non traditional structures as well.

    If you want to look at what helps teams to perform at a high level, my experience suggests self-esteem. When people feel good about themselves, their co-workers, and the leader, performance goes way up. Cooperation, coordination and collaboration are all connected to feeling truly alive at work.

    I think exploring how collusion occurs might offer more of a rewarding thread.

    • You are right, Robert. I was referring to traditional “top-down, control-oriented” organizations where power and approval is held at the top of the organization and teams and individuals who are intimately involved with the situation and understand it best are not given decision-making authority.

      Collaboration can occur in hierarchical organizations when the team has clear purpose, when they have developed effective team dynamics, when they have the information they need, and when they have the authority to exercise their decision. But there is nothing more demoralizing for a team to work really hard, know they have done an excellent job, and then to have it shot down because those higher the chain of command changed priorities without communicating them, didn’t share critical information, or because their own dynamics prevent effective decision making.

  • Great distinctions. Too often in business we throw around buzz words, often interchangeably, without stopping to think what they really mean, especially when put into action. Having successfully built, led and nurtured teams cross-functional teams across company divisions and offices, I have seen that true collaboration depends on the organizations culture, as defined by its leader.

    • Thanks, Rob. Your point about buzzwords is well taken. When we stop thinking about what they mean, putting them into action is meaningless. I also agree that if leaders believe collaboration is important, they must create and nurture a collaborative culture. (ps. I believe this is a business issue, to be addressed collaboratively by line business leaders and support functions such as IT and HR.)

  • I agree that its very important to be clear about the differences between teamwork and collaboration (and the other terms you mention as well). For me the key thing is that in a collaboration the 2 or more organisations involved are working towards a common goal – but they have their own distinct identities and different business drivers. It is recognising and getting value from that difference – and being able to deliver results across organisational boundaries that is at the heart of Collaborative Leadership. Its not about creating ‘one team’ with a single identity.
    And its the fact that in these situations Collaborative Leaders need to share control with others who will have different views and backgrounds that makes it hard – but rewarding.
    I’ve been researching / writing a lot about this recently for a new book if you want to read more have a look at http://www.socia.co.uk/knowledge/Publications.aspx
    David Archer

    • Delighted to have you weigh in on this, David. i agree that a key differentiator is that the parties involved maintain their distinct identities. I do believe it is possible for two individuals to collaborate on a project (or even a divorce – coming up with creative win-win solutions), to collaborate internally within an organization among and within teams, and as you point out between organizations. I am actually most intrigued with the later – not only as a business issue (collaboration with vendors, customers and even competitors) but among all the organizations that are currently so polarized they make us forget about our responsibility for stewardship for this beautiful planet and all of its inhabitants. I have much respect for the work you have been doing in the area of collaborative leadership and am looking forward to the release of the 2nd edition of your book in the US in April.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    Hi Jesse,

    Nice post. Thanks for the distinction on different terms used widely.

  • Last year having created a role in international trade with Lye Cross Farm as Head of Collaboration it has taken me 12 months to conclude it is an engineering role! I am building bridges.

  • Jesse, we have spoken before about the misunderstanding of the word collaboration and misuse of it. I am glad you wrote this post, and also illuminated the rationale by Marissa Mayer as I did not realise collaboration was part of the agenda.

    “Collaborative leadership is based on respect, trust and the wise use of power. Leaders must be willing to let go of control”. Trusting that people will not work from home effectively is in itself a leadership approach that is contradicting collaboration in itself.

  • Hi Jesse,

    Working with teams I differentiate between the work of the team and teamwork.
    Simply said, Teamwork is about the way a team works.

    Said differently – a team can produce good results, in spite of its bad teamwork.

    I agree: All three of them: coordination-cooperation-collaboration are important and all of them are aspects of teamwork.
    And yes, they are not the same!

    The way I work with those terms is hierarchical:
    Coordination is about a mechanism of mutual adjustment.
    Cooperation is about how each of us does his work so that we assure progress of our work.
    Collaboration is about how we do our work together, so that we assure that progress.
    In collaboration, the level of the mutual accountability is the highest.

    Thank you for clarifying and putting it on the table.

    • Thanks for sharing how you differentiate aspects of team functioning and your definitions, Yoram. Your comments remind me that what is most important is for the team to have a common language so they can talk about their functioning and how to improve it. I do agree with you that a team can produce good results … in the short term. But as I’m sure you know, poor teamwork (communication, decision-making processes, conflict management processes, etc) affect morale, and over the long term, results are not sustainable because they are inter-dependent with morale.

  • Great Post. Yes Collaboration (has bad name in Europe for collaborators with the enemy in WWII) should be renamed “Co-Creation” but maybe also “fast Co-learning”, since the benefit and driver of contributors to network co-creation is that you get very good information back from the experiences, from which each collaborator can learn, faster than others.

    See my “LENS” metaphore on http://slidesha.re/VQ52xk

    jaap van till, connectivist

    • I’ve thought of the association with WWII also, Jaap, which has troubled me. I’m of two minds – one is that we can change the meaning of words by the way we use them and the other is that words become reified and need to be constantly redefined in order to continue to have meaning. I do like the term “co-creation.” Thanks for sharing your interesting slide presentation, and, by the way, I love your title “connectivist.”

  • Thank you for your post. There are two recent articles that discuss these concepts.
    1. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053482211000544
    2. http://inderscience.metapress.com/content/t423024958662l26/
    They are certainly confusing terms that require clarifications.

  • Bill Matthies

    “Collaborative leadership is based on respect, trust and the wise use of power.”

    Management would do well to ask themselves “When wouldn’t we lead with respect, trust and the wise use of power”?

    My answer is, potentially when circumstances affecting those who lead as well as those who are lead, changes dramatically, and at no time does this happen more than when pursuing new change initiatives. The very people who have done a wonderful job managing the company as it has been might well be the absolute wrong people to lead it towards what it wants to become.

    When that happens the previously cohesive, respectful, trusting management team may become anything but.

    • You make some excellent points, Bill. I also have seen that during a large change, often some leaders who were collaborative and open in their approach to leadership close down, possibly out of fear and confusion. From what we have learned from neuroscience, this kind behavior (flight/flight/freeze) is instinctive. However, it is exactly the wrong thing to do. And I have seen many leaders use their higher level thinking to overcome their primitive responses and provide exactly the right kind of leadership during turbulent times. However, we do often see that the people who have done a wonderful job bringing the organization to a certain point are the wrong people to lead it to “what it wants to become.” Not only during times of change. For example, a smaller startup that originally needed to be flexible has now grown to a point that it needs to incorporate stable processes in order to avoid redundancies and increase communications. Sometimes the leaders that brought it to that point are not able to bring it forward. Sometimes it’s an issue of personality type not matching the needs of the organization. You have opened an interesting and important topic on the nuances of collaborative leadership. Much to think about and much more to be said on this subject. Thank you for raising it.

  • Pankaj

    I kind of see collaboration, coordination and cooperation as related, infact, I would put them all under the umbrella of “collaboration”.

    The actual act of working together (collaboration) requires the cooperation of team-members, and a coordination of their efforts. The latter two are inseparable from collaboration.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      I agree that in order to collaborate effectively, people need to cooperate and coordinate with each other. My main concern is when people say they are collaborating when in fact they are simply coordinating their efforts or cooperating with each other. True collaboration requires an exchange of ideas where something new emerges as a result.

  • Shashidhar

    Really a Eye opener.. we often confuse with all three.. Very Good Article.
    TO Put it across simply- Team work is more towards a individualistic transformation and
    Collaboration is something beyond Individual and more towards Socialistic approach to
    enable two or more teams together to invent / solve/ create something which is impossible to create as a single team .. Am I Right in putting it across ??

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      This is interesting to contemplate the difference through the lens of transformation. Members of high performing teams often describe a transformative experience – a moment where time seems to stand still and knowing is present. It can occur when they are working together really well, like Bill Russell described in his book Second Wind. I quote a passage in my post 8 Reasons Why Vision Matters. It is an interesting question whether he is describing individualistic or collective transformation. What is significantly different about collaboration is that something new emerges that would not have been created otherwise. It might be a new idea, a new solution, or a new plan. So I believe that collaboration is indeed collectively transformative. And one might assume that the individuals who participate also experience a personal transformation as well. Thanks for your excellent questions and perspective.

  • Sarfaraj Maner

    Beautiful articulation. Have shared this article with our leadership team.
    It clarifies all doubts and gives crystal clear understanding of collaboration.

  • Hauwa

    Thanks Jesse. We got a little bit confused while discussing it in class. This has been most educative. in addition to collaboration, coordination and cooperation, I’m also doing a research on the differences between acquisiton and merger?

  • matt bassett

    Interestingly, Melissa Meyer, since arriving at Yahoo, has also been quoted as saying that when faced with a problem to solve, you sometimes need to disregard managing but organizational structure or managing by function, and just go get it done. That is cooperation- not collaboration.

    The functional nuance between collaboration and cooperation is time. Curiously,it is seldom highlighted or even mentioned as a key distinguishing factor of the two approaches. The time invested in a collaborative process requires you to commit at the onset that you will take as long as it takes to come up with the best practice solution or best practice approach for your organizations problem.

    On the other hand a cooperative process does not require a commitment to time. Cooperation at its must fundamental state is as simple as getting out of the way. If you hire talent, trust the talent, and have alignment in your culture, you have the option of moving your organization much more quickly through cooperative team work than collaborative team work.

    Some organizations are so committed to the collaborative process that they cant remain nimble enough to respond quickly to the rapidly changing landscape they are trying to mange in. Our education systems, particularly higher education are clear examples of the dysfunction that can emerge from over collaboration.

    The very best leaders, in my humble view, are the ones who exhaust the cooperation model before convening the collaboration model. Work as hard as you can to remove barriers and obstacles from your most talented people so they can perform. At times, that barrier may be the collaborative process.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Hi Matt,
      You make many excellent points. Time is definitely an issue that needs to be considered. Rather than saying one process is better or worse than another, it works better to consider the context and the outcomes needed. I like to go back to the work of Victor Vroom and ask two questions: Do you have all the information you need to make the decision? Do you need others to support the decision for effective implementation? There are many times it makes more sense to take a cooperative approach. However, if you don’t have all the information, a collaborative approach can lead to new solutions you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. And if you need others support for effective implementation, the implementation process will go smoother and faster if there is more involvement, even though it slows things down on the front end. You might be interested in the post I just published today which addresses the issue of taking time out in the beginning in order to go faster down the road.
      Much thanks for adding your voice and good thinking to the conversation!

  • Antonio Mustelier Hechavarría

    Dear Jesse Lyn Stoner, for the last 2 years I have been working hard searching, retreaving, reading and investigating about these topics you are dealing with, that’s why I find your post and your blog very interesting. I am trying to undestand Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning and I know your blog is going to help me a lot.
    Wish you good health and success

  • matt b

    Another excellent piece Jesse and thank you. The comment section is also loaded with thoughtful reflection. Have you ever considered or written about ‘collaboration gone badly’. One example might be a leader or person of authority who is highly intentional about engaging in a collaborative process, and yet is unable to achieve a shared vision. When a leader does not possess the skills to set aside her/his power and authority in order to create a shared vision with the group, the process represents ‘orchestration’ not ‘collaboration’. And the leader is the last to know that the collaborative process is not being fully practiced or being fully realized.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Thanks Matt. The comments are my favorite part of blogging. It’s where we get to explore the topic more deeply.
      I love your suggestion about examining a “collaboration gone badly.” It’s one thing to tell people they should collaborate, but we are setting them up for failure if they are not equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitudes. Much thanks for your thought-provoking comments.

  • Chebelle Velasco

    Hi, I searched for the 3 Cs in teamwork, and I was led to this beautiful and insightful blogsite. I realized how seemingly similar words could have their respective nuances with respect to context. Hence, reading through your main article and the equally discerning comments, I shared with my colleagues another set of 3 Cs to teamwork: Collaboration. Communication. Connection. Thanks, Jesse.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>