What Real Collaboration Means


Abridged with the author’s permission from the Brain Traffic blog.

I’ve always thought I was good at collaboration, but after reading a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Teams That Only Think They Collaborate,” I began to question my own collaboration practices. In the article, the author divides up the way teams work into three categories, only one of which is actually collaboration.


This happens when each team member works independently and takes action in his or her own area of expertise. For example, a project starts with everyone agreeing that their company website is confusing to visitors. Hopefully, everyone works together to define or identify business goals and objectives. They then go off to develop their individual components. One person creates site messages and provides them to the writers. Another person develops site navigation and overall structure, and then gives it to the designers and developers. But because no one made sure everything was tied together, the improvements are likely to be inconsistent and marginal.


When each person still works independently, but also shares what he or she is doing with the group, this is called cooperation. Each individual creates and implements their individual solutions without an overall collective strategy. Then, before things are considered final, there is a gathering and sharing of feedback. That feedback usually falls into one of three categories:

  • Minor word changes and clarifications
  • Identifying any major gaps
  • Things to consider for next time

Even when people take additional time to look at the deliverables, they’re more likely to simply validate that high-level thinking has been done, rather than considering and questioning why it’s been done. Cooperation will improve the work, but it doesn’t really support exploring alternate ideas and directions.

And finally, collaboration

With true collaboration, individual goals are set aside to create collective achievement. It involves everyone working together to define and address the problem using the combined resources, ideas, and talents of the team. When you collaborate, you get others involved in the decision making process. You all work together to figure out the best way to solve an issue.

What collaboration really means

I realized that I had been complying and cooperating as often as I was collaborating. I wasn’t doing it on purpose. But after reading the article, I discovered there were a few habits I could change right away that would help me work more collaboratively.

  • Leave room for others to collaborate. Before, I would take my thinking almost to the final solution before I shared it. By inviting others in at the key decision points, I’ve been able to include additional ideas and directions that I wouldn’t have considered on my own.
  • Get things down on paper early. I tend to think through stuff in my head before I start writing. By creating documentation in iterations, I can give others a framework to understand where I’m coming from and build upon.
  • Understand it’s still ok to work alone. Everyone still needs time alone to do research and analysis, and develop shared ideas. It’s when and where you come back together that makes it collaborative. If you feel you’re at the point of setting or changing the approach or overall direction, that’s a great time for a collaborative working session.

Christine Benson is a content strategist for Brain Traffic, a nationally-renowned agency specializing in content strategy and content implementation.

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  1. Sara
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I think one of the interesting things about “true collaboration” is how important it is for goals to be explicit, measurable, and reiterated, and that progress (or lack thereof) towards goals needs to be communicated, monitored, agreed upon, and understood.

    I’ve recently become a ScrumMaster practicing Agile Change Management and there’s a lot of things in the discipline of it that foster true collaboration and participation of team members.

    Agile tends to be found in software development shops but its precepts are good for all kinds of project management, regardless of the field. I would encourage people to learn more if they are interested in that “true collaboration” you talk about!

    http://www.versionone.com/Agile101/ is a resource that is pretty well organized to explain the field.

  2. Joshua Malbin Magnificent Publications Inc.
    Posted December 17, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    You’re absolutely right about collaboration requiring explicit, well-communicated and monitored goals. Thanks for the information about Agile, I’ll check it out.

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