The Difference Between Cooperation and Collaboration

Mike Kaechele offered some great pushback on my last post. Mike is a highly respected project-based learning teacher who often leads PBL trainings in his spare time. So, when he pushes back, I’m quick to listen. I wish I could play back the entire conversation, because there was so much depth and nuance to what he brought up. He mentioned his time working construction, when groups were rarely self-selected and you simply had to figure out how to work together.

So, it has me wondering, “Can you force collaboration in groups?”

Collaboration begins with trust and a shared vision for what you want to accomplish. Those are two things that you simply can’t force on people. However, I’ve been a part of groups that were not self-selected and in the process of working together, we developed trust and eventually we shifted into a collaborative team. Yet, despite the group being “forced,” the collaboration remained voluntary. We hit that place where we wanted to work together.

In most cases, we started out as a cooperative group and we shifted into a collaborative group over time. Cooperative groups are more like networks built on respect and shared norms. The work shifts between independence and dependence where the members remain autonomous but agree to share information, tasks, and ideas. By contrast, a collaborative group is interdependent, with a shared vision and values. The mutual respect evolves into trust and the transparency eventually leads to vulnerability.

instagram - cooperation


I’ve seen leaders who want to push groups into that place of collaboration but if it moves too quickly, things fall apart. Fake trust is worse than respect. Vulnerability without trust just feels risky. Interdependence can’t happen when members haven’t had the chance to explore roles and shared tasks.

Both Are Necessary

It’s easy to look at the chart and assume that collaboration is better than cooperation. Part of that is my fault. The word “versus” implies an opposition. However, cooperation and collaboration should compliment each other — along with truly independent, autonomous work time.

There are some flaws to collaborative grouping. These groups tend to grow insular and fall into groupthink. Well-functioning teams can be too slow to change because they are already working so well together that they miss the fact that they aren’t innovating. This kind of work can also be emotionally draining. Even in a healthy, functioning collaborative team, conflict can arise and it feels more personal because people know one another at a deeper level.

This is why cooperative grouping is vital. When using design thinking, I encourage collaborative grouping on certain projects. However, in each of the phases, I encourage members to move to other cooperative groups to provide feedback and share ideas. Groups will often meet with one another to look at their work from another angle. This shorter, networked style of interaction helps keep things fresh. It provides a positive disruption that pushes collaborative groups to think differently.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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6 responses

  1. Hey Pal,

    I totally dig this bit and your chart. I think you are right that one of the biggest mistakes that we make is assuming that collaboration is more important than cooperation AND that we can force people into collaborative situations just because it has been mandated.

    Cooperation can be required. Collaboration is a choice. Moving from one to the next depends on experience and relationships and our willingness to invest in — and be vulnerable in front of — others.

    That’s something most #atplc principals miss.

    Thanks for pushing my thinking on this!

  2. […] Individualized learning shifts to independence. But design thinking teaches students to work interdependently, balancing the needs of the group with the need for personal […]

  3. Great post, thank you. As a PM I always say the the 3Cs are critical to success. Cooperation, Collaboration and Communications. Love the video

  4. Interesting and understandable points

  5. […] Spencer, J. (2016, June 22). The difference between cooperation and colaboration. Available at […]

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