On co-operation or collaboration

I long mused about the difference between cooperation and collaboration as they are two words often used interchangeably. I was watching a police drama and realised that criminals never collaborate with the police. They cooperate. In doing so they get something and the police get something. Normally a trade-off between information given and potential consequences of the crime. In other words they are both trying to achieve different ends, and by cooperating they can help each other achieve them. It’s the same reason why we see similar businesses locate together even though they are in competition, such as the curry houses in Brick Lane in London. There is a greater attraction of customers by the density of businesses co-operating. Co-operation is when mutual alignment can serve each parties objectives.

Collaboration, on the other hand, is the idea that you are working together to achieve the same end. This will never happen in a police interview. But it will happen in a marriage or, if you have great colleagues, with your programme team at work, or in an orchestra. Based on my experience I would suggest that collaboration requires the setting of a clearly defined challenge that is the same for all parties. Critical is the requirement to agree a shared objective or intended outcome. To achieve this, it’s helpful to create a neutral space that is the organisational preserve of none of the participants; develop new, shared ‘rules’ or operating procedures that guide the work; have a degree of authority delegated from all organisations to provide the legitimacy to do the work; involve participants with a ‘we’ mindset not an ‘I’ mindset; identify triggers for when reference back to individual organisations is required; create clear accountability of participants back to the relevant organisations to ensure that the collaborative effort continues to receive buy-in and support; have an idea of when the work might end. 

A central challenge for such collaborative bodies or multi-agency partnerships is that they operate outside each organisation’s ususal rules and guidelines, and so can be seen to be lacking in accountability and transparency. There are ways around this. Each participant can bring an aspect of their organisations governance: one can act as ‘banker’, managing the budget, one can provide the secretariat around the meetings, one can undertake comms and  host any web content, one could chair. Often an operational collaborative group would report in to a strategic group of the host organisation’s leaders. It might be appropriate to create a ‘sandbox’ environment within which to collaborate and – almost by definition – experiment. One advantage here is the ability to suspend the usual institutional incentives that so often hinder effective working. 

If this challenge is resolved by one organisation taking on all these roles, as is often the case with local authorities, it can be hard to see the work as collaborative, given they can then be perceived to be in control. Yet if it is dissipated, it can be hard to retain co-ordination and effective working. Herein lies the ultimate challenge. I believe there is really only one way around this. In all my work in this space we would ask participating organisations to send the relevant person along to the meetings. Sometimes we thought we knew who that was. Sometimes it was because they held a specific role in the organisation (think of an estate-based partnership pooling housing, neighbourhood, teaching, community police, etc). It was never because they were people suited to collaborative work, even if that work constituted some or all of their day job. 

Therefore I’ll return to the idea of mindset. Those who collaborate effectively are selfless in their work. Their incentives are around making the system better and on the people who will benefit as a result. They are not interested in power and refuse to play power games. They focus on the problem not the personality. They don’t mind who gets the credit because, to be successful, everyone will have done their bit, not only the musicians in an orchestra but those who prepare the concert hall for their work. They see the bigger picture as well as the detail, are creative in approach, and draw on many disciplines or insights to help them navigate complexity. They talk of our budgets or community budgets or – best of all – public money; never ‘my budget’.  

You can tell if someone is a natural collaborator because they don’t talk in the individual, they talk in the collective. They are We people not I people. I people are often takers. We need people in this work who are, as Adam Grant calls them, givers. They know what they are giving to the work, and they know what they are relying on from the others. 

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