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When not to use a “Collaborative” Approach: Scenarios where “Cooperative” is the better adjective!

It seems like the world is constantly being bombarded with encouragement and pressure to collaborate, whether in business or international affairs, school work or just playing in the playground. It appears that there are so many instances where people don’t want to collaborate and most articles therefore seem to address when you should collaborate and the benefits of collaborating. This leaves some frustrated because based on experience; they are looking for justification to not collaborate!

Well I’m sorry, I’m not here to give you ammunition to throw in the towel on your collaborative project, but clearly we know that there are gains to be made when you put smart people together to “go at a problem.” These include the prospects of diverse resources, skills and technologies, prestige e.t.c. adding up to a total that is greater than the sum of parts! But if those common reasons are not persuasive, for those who do not want to collaborate, it’s certainly true that collaboration calls for extremely complicated devices including “rules of the road” and organizational innovation which are not always properly factored in (at least for international projects).

Perhaps then, they should look to the much milder objective of “Cooperative”.

The distinction is very hard to decipher, even when we look at the epistemology of the words. Well, cooperari is “to work together with” which arguably is the same as laborare “to work”. One long definition of collaboration here is that COLLABORATION stands for: Communicate, Obtain, Locate, Learn, Assist, Build, Offer, Resolve, Ask, Transfer, Innovate, Onboard, Network! But for me collaboration is almost like a final stage activity, with several steps coming before it where many of the points mentioned in the acronym above would have already occurred! I tend to see that where most people think they at the collaboration stage they are actually at the cooperation stage!

not there yet

Well you know lawyers love definitions.

In my PhD research I have taken the definition of cooperation as more of an enabling function…To enable a specific outcome. Let me explain with an example from the space law world, which I’m sure many of you have never heard of. International space law’s cardinal principle under Article I of the Outer Space Treaty is that space exploration should be used for the benefit and in the interest of all countries. After many years of space exploration, this very indeterminate and ‘fluid” concept brought dissatisfaction to some, particularly from developing countries because it is extremely difficult to interpret. On the one hand the more established players could say that by simple act of making space activities available to the world they are enabling the outcome of “benefit sharing” while others could argue that without a direct action implementing the provision and calling for direct benefit sharing, its just another empty provision. The world decided that the “correct” interpretation of this provision is that it simply calls for international cooperation. While this is equally fluid, my interpretation is that this calls for enablement of capability to be able to bring more people to the table to participate. These players may not be in the same place, level or mindset and cooperation gets them towards the vision of the same goal! Collaboration however assumes that they already are there and are equally ready to actually achieve that goal. It’s hard to reap the benefits of collaboration if one has not spent some time cooperating to get the team to a place of consensus ad idem about what they want to achieve.

Therefore, it seems that one is not not fully ready for collaboration till the following stages have been surpassed: Coordination, Augmentation which eases into cooperation – i.e. beginning of letting go of control, Interdependence – all parties are on the critical path and Integration through collaboration – acceptance of maximum levels of transfer.

4 stages of collaboration

But how does one determine where they are on this ladder? It is important to assess the team and look at the following factors:

1. Identification of anti-collaborative behaviors before establishment of teams. When people do not see themselves as equals each bringing something useful to the table, the idea of “exceptionalism” exists and kills collaboration
Note the limited experience of working together within the team or similar teams with this type of structure.

2. Bringing people together is idyllic, but if they have never worked together or collaborated in this way there needs to be preparatory cooperative work to build them up.

3. The leader may have his reasons for wanting to collaborate but if there are varying capacity levels within the team with some wanting to learn as main objective and others wanting to “make” something happen, collaboration is harder. Therefore individual goals and the objective of self-actualization must be understood to get to collective actualization!

4. If collaboration actually seeks to breed dependency through creating reliance on this one team or process, it will never work. Cooperation on the other hand exposes one to a wider variety of players and ideas with less commitment at the start. It’s more time consuming but allows an initial buildup of trust!

On the flip side the more concrete nature of collaboration means there’s more likely a tangible outcome, but for who’s gain? This pessimistic stance unfortunately comes from experiences of international collaboration that I have seen between those enjoying the full benefits of space activity and those on the margins wanting an opportunity to experience the benefits of space technology…

So, what is the take away?

Not sure. I`d love to see your comments below as to whether this distinction is just semantics. The way I see it, the most important considerations to bear in mind when attempting to move towards a more collaborative approach are that
1) Differences need to be understood
2) Early definition of common objectives with buy in from the team must be laid down
3) Conditions of reciprocity and transparency must be fostered; and
4) A lot of patience is required.

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