Defining and Achieving True Collaboration

The word collaboration is everywhere these days. Talks, meetings, conversations are almost sure to include it. Managers praise the powers of collaboration. People cite “collaborative efforts” and “collaboration is key.” This is all fine, except, I don’t think many of those speaking know what collaboration really means. In fact, I know from personal experience that many things later labeled as “a collaboration” were not collaborative at all.

Some of the problem is that the word collaboration is often used as a synonym for three other words that start with C: Communication, coordination, and cooperation. There is a difference between these words, one which most people don’t know or don’t see as important. It is important to understand what collaboration really means. Especially if you aspire to achieve it!

Let me illustrate the differences between these terms. I’ll use the Cambridge Dictionary of American English and my own understandings. Then we can see why collaboration is both highly desirable and hard to achieve.


Dictionary definition: the process by which messages or information is sent from one place or person to another

Communication is the transmission of information from one person or group to another person or group. Communication is key to any endeavor, of course. The receiver determines the success of the communication. And, good communication is two way, meaning the sender and receiver should take action to confirm that the information was understood.



Dictionary definition: the activity of organizing separate things so that they work together

Many times in doing work, the piece that I created needs to work well with the piece you created. The work of integrating these separate efforts is coordination. It may be that one part or the other does not make a useful result, so coordination of these pieces is required. Or the parts might be valuable on their own but are more valuable together.



Dictionary definition: to act or work together for a shared purpose, or to help willingly when asked

Cooperation is the act of helping someone else achieve his or her goal. And, probably sooner or later the same person will help achieve your goal. The plus here is that some teamwork is involved, though we might not be always on the same team.



Dictionary definition: to work together or with someone else for a special purpose

Two or more people work together for a single purpose. They work together, side by side, to accomplish the shared goal. Some elements of communication, coordination, and cooperation will exist as parts of a collaboration. These elements come and go naturally as the pair or team are focused on creation, not information.



  • Communication – A slide presentation. The architect writes a design document, presents and posts it. The business analyst sends an email.
  • Coordination – The developer submits code for testing. The UX designer checks that the developer implemented the elements correctly. One team times their release to match the release of another team.
  • Cooperation – The product owner adjusts some story priority to meet the dependency of another team. One developer implements some code because another developer got called away. The client accepts that a story be dropped so a different can be developed instead.
  • Collaboration – Pair programming. The developer and tester write tests and code together. An energetic discussion at an iteration review leads to a paper prototype of an exciting new feature.


Collaboration comes when the participants are using data to create something new, not just transmitting or sharing data. Communication, coordination, and cooperation happen in rapid succession, feeding the creative stream. The diversity of experience, skills, and knowledge is focused all at once on a single effort.

You’ve probably experienced collaboration. It was that time when everyone is was focused, ignoring the clock, emails, and everything else. When suddenly a result was created with relief and elation. When you and your collaborators looked back and said “What just happened? How did we do that?” and you weren’t able to describe how you got to the result.

Have you ever experienced the psychological state of flow? Collaboration is that but as a group, as a real team!

Power of Agile

A great deal of the power from Agile practices is the nurturing of collaborative opportunities. All those “silly” exercises, using sticky notes, standing up, estimating together, colocation, and so on exist to foster collaboration. They are intended to create the environments and actions that produce collaboration more often, so that enjoyable work and better results happen more often. Such a way of working results far more often in innovative solutions, in things that none of the participants could have thought of by themselves. Collaboration is how you get the whole team to be more than the sum of the individuals.

Collaboration is hard to achieve because it takes time and focus. Time to become comfortable with your skills, your collaborator’s skills and the problem you are trying to solve. Time to work into a focused state. Focus on shared goals and agreed outcomes instead of the work method. Things like multitasking, work structured to be done by individuals, highly controlled environments, and fear are just some of the things that push a team back into communication, coordination, and cooperation instead of collaboration.

How many of us pay homage to the idea of collaboration, but don’t take a hard look at how collaborative our actual systems for fulfillment really are? Do team members have shared deliverables? Do you structure the work environment so that collaboration is encouraged? What must change in your work so that real collaboration happens more often?