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Coordination, Cooperation and Collaboration

Collaboration operates through a process in which the successful intellectual achievements of one person arouse the intellectual passions and enthusiasms of others. — Alexander von Humboldt

Coordination equates to Governance (a.k.a Leadership) and enables, facilitates, delegates and holds the Space for the Evolutionary Purpose of an Entity. Coordination is the relationship defining interaction of the Power Structure (seat/s of power) and Power Process (flow/s of power), it is the Rules of Engagement. e.g. centralized, decentralized, cooperation, collaboration.

A frequently asked question in spheres of Human-Centric Organization, those in search of more holistic, balanced and naturally aligned solutions and examples of collective interactions and productivity, is

‘What is the difference between Cooperation and Collaboration?’

A simple Analogy

Cooperation, is two people carrying their own “similar” baskets to a common destination for mutually beneficial individual gain, increasing impact, volume and leverage. Collaboration, is two people carrying their two baskets (or maybe even more and often very different) by sharing the load between them to a shared destination for the mutual benefit of the individuals, collective and entity. For a more in depth and pragmatic treatment of the two concepts, including when each is best suited for use, keep reading.

The Definitions


  1. proper order or relationship
  2. balanced and effective interaction of harmonious functioning
  3. harmonious combination, adjustment or interaction of functioning parts.


  1. more or less active assistance or willingness to assist.
  2. collective power to act; efficacy, influence, or force. Requires Consensus
  3. collective exertion of force, power, or influence; agency.
  4. an act or instance of working or acting together for a common purpose or benefit; joint operation or action.
  5. the combination of persons partaking in activities for purposes of a particular process, course or procedure of productive or industrial activity shared for their joint or mutual benefit.
  6. mutually beneficial but inessential interaction among organisms living in a limited area or community.


  1. to work, to toil, to labour, to endeavour, to strive, to suffer, to produce, one with another
  2. to work, usually willingly, with an enemy.
  3. to work with another or others on a joint project, as in Coalition.
  4. structured methods of collaboration encourages introspection of behaviour and communication
  5. working with others to do a task, and to achieve shared purpose. It is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals, (this is more than the intersection of common goals seen in co-operation, but a deep, collective determination to reach an identical objective): for example, an endeavour that is creative in nature — by sharing knowledge, learning and building corroboration & consent.
  6. Collaboration requires leadership, although the form of leadership can be social within a decentralized and egalitarian group.

Differentiating coordination, cooperation, collaboration & teamwork

The differences between these terms can be illustrated by considering these criteria:

Preconditions for success (“must-haves”)

  • Coordination: Mutual objectives; Need for more than one person to be involved; Understanding of who needs to do what by when.
  • Cooperation: Common objectives; Need for more than one person to be involved; Mutual trust and respect; Acknowledgment of mutual benefit of working together
  • Collaboration: Shared objectives; Sense of urgency and commitment; Dynamic process; Sense of belonging; Open communication; Mutual trust and respect; Complementary, diverse skills and knowledge; Intellectual agility

Enablers (additional “nice to haves”)

  • Coordination: Appropriate tools (see below); Problem resolution mechanism
  • Cooperation: Frequent consultation and knowledge-sharing between participants; Clear role definitions; Appropriate tools (see below)
  • Collaboration: Right mix of people; Collaboration skills and practice collaborating; Good facilitator(s); Collaborative ‘Four Practices’ mind-set and other appropriate tools (see below)

Purpose of using this approach

  • Coordination: Avoid gaps & overlap in individuals’ assigned work
  • Cooperation: Obtain mutual benefit by sharing or partitioning work
  • Collaboration: Achieve collective results that the participants would be incapable of accomplishing working alone

Desired outcome

  • Coordination: Efficiently-achieved results meeting objectives
  • Cooperation: Same as for Coordination, plus savings in time and cost
  • Collaboration: Same as for Cooperation, plus innovative, extraordinary, breakthrough results, and collective ‘we did that!’ accomplishment

Optimal application

  • De/Centralised: Harmonizing tasks, roles and schedules in simple environments and systems
  • Cooperation: Solving problems in complicated environments and systems
  • Collaboration: Enabling the emergence of understanding and realization of shared visions in complex environments and systems


  • De/Centralised: Project to implement off-the-shelf IT application; Traffic flow regulation
  • Cooperation: Operating a local community-owned utility or grain elevator; Coping with an epidemic or catastrophe
  • Collaboration: Brainstorming to discover a dramatically better way to do something; Jazz or theatrical improvisation; Co-creation

Appropriate tools

  • De/Centralised: Project management tools with schedules, roles, critical path (CPM), PERT and GANTT charts; “who will do what by when” action lists
  • Cooperation: Systems thinking; Analytical tools (root cause analysis etc.)
  • Collaboration: Appreciative inquiry; Open Space meeting protocols; Four Practices; Conversations; Stories

Degree of interdependence in designing the effort’s work-products

(and need for physical co-location of participants)

  • De/Centralised: Minimal
  • Cooperation: Considerable
  • Collaboration: Substantial

Degree of individual latitude in carrying out the agreed-upon design

  • De/Centralisation: Minimal
  • Cooperation: Considerable
  • Collaboration: Substantial

One way to think of differentiating definitions

  • De/Centralised: The organization of efforts of different parties to reach a mutual goal. High-stakes issues are not often involved, and parties need not carry a relationship beyond the accomplishment of the task at hand. The goal is static.
  • Cooperation: A means to an end that involves gains and losses on the part of each participant. This can sometimes foster a competitive environment, and parties need not carry a relationship beyond the accomplishment of the task at hand. The goal is static.
  • Collaboration: All parties work together and build corroboration and consent to reach a decision or create a product, the result of which benefits all parties. Competition is a nearly-insurmountable roadblock to collaboration, and the relationship among parties must continue beyond the accomplishment of the task in order to assure its viability. The goal is dynamic.

Where do teams, partnerships, think-tanks, open-source and joint ventures fit in this schema?

The general definition of a team is an interdependent group, which suggests that collaborative groups are teams, and cooperative groups may or may not be. Partnerships and joint ventures are both primarily cooperative undertakings; whose objectives evolve over time. Open-source developments can run the gamut among all types of undertaking. So theoretically can think-tanks, though in reality much think-tank work is solitary and not really collaborative. Even the work of scientists on major international projects is substantially individual, with a lot more coordination and cooperation than true collaboration.

“Collaboration should involve passionate disagreement” — Linda A. Hill, Greg Bandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback

Hopefully this helps in shining some light on the nuances and differences of the terms, and highlights that (like in Nature) all forms of coordination have their merit and are consequently equally important to incorporate in a Human-Centric Organization. What you may discover in the process also, is that you will require a robust Decision Making Framework to act as guide in identifying when to use which method, and a comprehensive Conflict Resolution Process to enable consolidation of the various coordination approaches.


A big thank you to Steph Thom, founder of Ikigai: Creating purposeful Organisations for reviewing this article.

Some Resources:

  1. Collective Genius” THE JUNE 2014 ISSUE: Havard Business Review
  2. Community vs. Social Network” BY MikeW ‎06–06–2010 — EDITED ‎10–13–2016: Lithium Science of Social Blog
  3. How Do People Become Connected?” BY MikeW ‎06–06–2010 — EDITED ‎10–13–2016: Lithium Science of Social Blog
  4. From Weak Ties to Strong Ties” BY MikeW ‎06–06–2010 — EDITED ‎10–13–2016: Lithium Science of Social Blog
  5. What’s the flavor of your collaboration?” BY Rebecca Colwell January 11, 2016: Ten Directions

Originally published at clockworxnz.wordpress.com on August 25, 2016.




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Mieke Byerley

Mieke Byerley

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