But the truth of the matter is that there is a very subtle difference between a collaborator and a cooperator. And the only way you can tell which you’re doing is to be looking at it from the outside, in.
Both use similar systems and ways of working.
Both involve two (or more) people coming together to work toward a common goal.
Both involve listening to each other.
Both also involve communication.
It’s tough to communicate what you want or need if you can’t speak a common language. You have to learn how to communicate with each other, to find common ground and common terms, even when your language might be completely different.
Within a cooperative or collaborative relationship, everyone also needs to accept that they don’t know all the answers to all of the problems all of the time. Part of that involves trust. That means trusting that your partners are going to do the work that they say that they’re going to, without necessarily overseeing their every move, not to mention that they have the ability to do what they said they would.
Sometimes there are leaders, but not always. Just as there aren’t always leaders, there aren’t always followers either. One person may have a vision, and the other may contribute to that. Or, the group may develop a vision together and then come to a consensus about how that vision will come into being. Or the process may be a hybrid of any of these .It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the final outcome is something that could not have been achieved without the group efforts, and that, that outcome is greater than the sum of its equivalent parts.
So what differentiates cooperation from collaboration? It greatly depends on who is viewing the end result of that process, and who is being impacted by it.
If we look at a process like the one I described above from within, no matter what, it will look cooperative. However, when you look at some projects from outside of the project, it may seem collaborative because it challenges the systems in which it was established.
This semester, I took part in a project to support a local organization (The Yorkland Green Hub)through the Ideas Congress Course at the University of Guelph. It’s a transdisciplinary course, and together with a group of 40 students from 14 different disciplines, we envisioned how we might help the YGH build and develop a mobile learning lab (complete with elementary and high school curriculum and website design and content) which uses carbon neutral technology. The YGH would say that our process was cooperative because it helped support their goal.
But viewed within an academic framework, our course challenged the academic system. It wasn’t following the normal academic program. We couldn’t all receive credits for the ICON course. Instead we obtained credits in our fields of specialization. We weren’t all learning the same thing. We had different outcomes that were expected of us. We all had different advisors, all for the same course.
What kind of course does that? One that subverts the system that already exists.
This is the difference between cooperation and collaboration. Collaboration subverts the system that already exists. It challenges the status quo. It dares to ask “What can we change to make things better without necessarily imagining the system that already exists.”
While this might seem sinister or threatening when looking from the outside, I can assure you, it feels liberating and exciting and even a bit uncomfortable, from the inside. But I’ll tell you something else: it gives you the ability to dream of a better future, with a group of other people who are trying to imagine how it might look too. You’re not alone.
So get used to being uncomfortable. Get used to stretching the parameters of your boxes. Because, someday your dream might become what everyone else calls “the system” and others may be dreaming up new ways to subvert it to a new direction.