A discussion between two or more individuals engaged in collaboration

Collaboration and cooperation are two words which are often used interchangeably, especially in the workplace. Both terms are so overused that their distinct meanings have blended into one. They’ve effectively become buzzwords. But contrary to popular belief, they're different!

There’s a small but crucial difference which impacts a number of ways work gets done in organizations, including how people associate their work with the organization’s goals, and how they see their work in relation to their colleague’s.

So it’s worth investigating the actual definitions of these two words. Let’s get right into it.

What is collaboration?

First, let’s define collaboration. Collaboration is when a group of people come together and work on a project in support of a shared objective, outcome, or mission. It’s a photographer working with a designer to create a cover image, or the technology department working with the marketing team to improve their customer journey.

Here’s an example:

You and I work in different departments. You’re the lead developer on the tech team and I’m a senior product designer. We get together to discuss the product we’re working on and decide together that we need to make it more efficient for our users. This is our shared vision for the product. Together we design and implement a major change to the product that accomplishes this. In this respect, we’re co-authors of this particular project. We share credit.

What is cooperation?

On the other hand, cooperation is when a group of people work in support of another’s goals. It’s a teammate helping you put together your presentation. Or a developer helping explain how to word the technical details in your monthly product email.

The key point to note here is that there isn’t really a shared vision. Collaboration implies shared ownership and interest in a specific outcome. If you and I collaborate on a project, we have shared authorship. Cooperation, on the other hand, could just mean that you've given me help on something I'm working on and that I'm ultimately responsible for.

Why is this important?

The difference between these two terms is important because one term implies ownership by one individual and the other implies co-ownership by two or more individuals—or even by an entire organization. It’s the difference between working on someone else’s project (furthering their goals) and working with someone to achieve a goal which you both share.

In short, it’s a question of ownership. The way your organization frames ownership of projects and goals, it turns out, has a profound impact on your people’s experience within your organization. Collaboration, more so than cooperation, communicates to your people that their work is meaningful and part of a larger group effort. In this sense, each collaborator turns into an equal stakeholder, and gains a sense that they're contributing to something larger than themselves.

This doesn’t mean that cooperation is worse than collaboration, or that it has to be one way or the other. In fact, people working together, especially in larger organizations, sometimes struggle to find shared visions just by the nature of how teams are structured. Sometimes there just isn’t any identifiable common ground. Similarly, people might cooperate on projects that other people are collaborating on. They offer their services but don’t share the same goal, vision, and co-ownership. Both collaboration and cooperation are necessary modes of effective teamwork.

Of course there are some major benefits to finding common ground between teams and implementing changes to ensure collaboration not only happens, but makes sense. The first step is to find and communicate a shared sense of purpose between departments.

Creating a shared sense of purpose

A shared purpose, above all, is the key driver of collaboration. But communicating that purpose and instilling it in people is a massive challenge in and of itself. Collaboration can’t be enforced; it has to come naturally out of a shared interest in achieving goals. Only then can the collaborative process take hold in an organization.

A lot of this will depend on your leaders’ ability to break down divisions between departments and align teams around common goals. This can be done in regular All Hands meetings, quarterly get-togethers, and by frequently celebrating collaborative relationships between teams: holding them up as something all employees should aspire to. Leaders should identify shared visions and acknowledge how teams formed working relationships to make those visions a reality.

But emphasizing a shared sense of purpose isn’t only the work of leaders. It can be done by anyone, either in an official meeting setting or just in casual conversation: “What’s your team working on? Oh, interesting. There’s some overlap with my team. Let’s set up a meeting next week to see how we can achieve that goal together.”

Collaboration as a process

When people share the same purpose, collaboration happens almost naturally. It’s actually kind of weird! But effective collaboration does require some organization. And even the most collaborative environment will find room for cooperation too.

One way to go about making this happen is to sit down with other teams regularly to find intersections where collaborating makes sense. At Jostle, teams are always getting together in conference rooms to give status reports, express pain points, and figure out how we can help each other achieve shared goals. We've all made it part of our collaborative process to always be exploring the ways we intersect with other teams. On top of that, sharing information is crucial, for both the process and the articulation of shared purpose.

Finding complementary skills between teams is one more way to build the connections necessary for collaboration. Focus on people whose combined skills can handle shared projects and start to build relationships from that. Think of this as exploring a potential partnership that bridges the departmental divide (hopefully taking down any silos with it).


Collaboration and cooperation are not at odds with each other. Rather, they’re two ways of making teamwork happen. And although this article focuses more on collaboration, I want to be clear that these two are often occurring in tandem, depending on the stakeholders involved. A collaborative environment is also simultaneously a cooperative environment.

To execute major initiatives in your organization—integrating a newly acquired firm, overhauling an IT system—you need complex teams. Such teams’ defining characteristics—large, virtual, diverse, and specialized—are crucial for handling daunting projects. Yet these very characteristics can also destroy team members’ ability to work together, say Gratton and Erickson. For instance, as team size grows, collaboration diminishes.

To maximize your complex teams’ effectiveness, construct a basis for collaboration in your company. Eight practices hinging on relationship building and cultural change can help. For example, create a strong sense of community by sponsoring events and activities that bring people together and help them get to know one another. And use informal mentoring and coaching to encourage employees to view interaction with leaders and colleagues as valuable.

When executives, HR professionals, and team leaders all pitch in to apply these practices, complex teams hit the ground running—the day they’re formed.

The Idea in Practice

The authors recommend these practices for encouraging collaboration in complex teams:

What Executives Can Do
  • Invest in building and maintaining social relationships throughout your organization.


Royal Bank of Scotland’s CEO commissioned new headquarters built around an indoor atrium and featuring a “Main Street” with shops, picnic spaces, and a leisure club. The design encourages employees to rub shoulders daily, which fuels collaboration in RBS’s complex teams.

  • Model collaborative behavior.


At Standard Chartered Bank, top executives frequently fill in for one another, whether leading regional celebrations, representing SCB at key external events, or initiating internal dialogues with employees. They make their collaborative behavior visible through extensive travel and photos of leaders from varied sites working together.

  • Use coaching to reinforce a collaborative culture.


At Nokia, each new hire’s manager lists everyone in the organization the newcomer should meet, suggests topics he or she should discuss with each person on the list, and explains why establishing each of these relationships is important.

What HR Can Do
  • Train employees in the specific skills required for collaboration: appreciating others, engaging in purposeful conversation, productively and creatively resolving conflicts, and managing programs.
  • Support a sense of community by sponsoring events and activities such as networking groups, cooking weekends, or tennis coaching. Spontaneous, unannounced activities can further foster community spirit.


Marriott has recognized the anniversary of the company’s first hotel opening by rolling back the cafeteria to the 1950s and sponsoring a team twist dance contest.

What Team Leaders Can Do
  • Ensure that at least 20%–40% of a new team’s members already know one another.


When Nokia needs to transfer skills across business functions or units, it moves entire small teams intact instead of reshuffling individual people into new positions.

  • Change your leadership style as your team develops. At early stages in the project, be task-oriented: articulate the team’s goal and accountabilities. As inevitable conflicts start emerging, switch to relationship building.
  • Assign distinct roles so team members can do their work independently. They’ll spend less time negotiating responsibilities or protecting turf. But leave the path to achieving the team’s goal somewhat ambiguous. Lacking well-defined tasks, members are more likely to invest time and energy collaborating.