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Collaboration, Teamwork, Cooperation - What's the Difference?

October 01, 2014

Collaboration, Teamwork, Cooperation - What's the Difference?

Are teamwork and collaboration interchangeable? For that matter, are cooperation and collaboration the same? Most of us tend to treat these words as synonyms. But I believe there are nuances that could help us be more effective.

From what I’ve observed over the years, there’s a continuum based on the degree of interdependence and shared purpose (see image above).


At the bottom is cooperation. Cooperation is when two or more people share information and resources in pursuit of individual goals. The old “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” This implies a tit-for-tat arrangement with no shared purpose or interdependence. New things may result, but only because of each person’s efforts.


Teamwork takes cooperation up a notch because in this case, the individuals share a common goal. This is important in organizations that often operate in silos and require cross-functional actions to achieve a goal, e.g. putting on a company trade show. Teams form as needed and disperse when the goal is reached.


Collaboration becomes necessary when interdependences are so great that without a shared purpose, the goal could not be achieved. And just to make things more complicated, collaboration can occur among strangers, and even competitors. Who, by the way, may also have competing goals.

Collaborations also don’t have one supreme leader. Unlike in teams where you have one leader held responsible for the outcome, collaborative leadership is context-dependent. During collaborations, leaders arise when and as needed. People easily adapt to and even demand these leaders show up. People become emotionally attached to and engaged in the shared purpose. They’ll work hard to fulfill it. Even if they don’t agree with the current goal they’re working to meet.

Moreover, these symbiotic relationships don’t go away — they are an on-going part of daily business life. In a truly collaborative culture, this is business as usual. Such a culture adeptly moves up and down the collaboration continuum — using whatever form of social interaction is the most effective to suit the assignment at hand. Yet perhaps most frustrating of all, there are often multiple goals that may morph and change over time — all in pursuit of fulfilling the shared purpose. It’s messy, but ultimately this is where innovation comes from.

Humans Hold the Keys

Collaboration is not Camelot. It’s not nirvana. It’s not all wonderful. Nor is teamwork or cooperation. They all have their challenges. Not the least of which are the quirks of human beings. We must figure out how to work with diverse behaviors and attitudes — if we want to work effectively together.

As leaders in our organizations, it’s our responsibility to provide direction, guidance, coaching, and support to help our employees use the collaboration continuum well. When we model the different options in our own daily work, it does more to elicit the behaviors and attitudes we need from them, than mere words alone.

Transparency and Context

For collaborative cultures to flourish, transparent and context-rich communication is essential. This becomes more crucial the bigger or more complex your organization is. Given how fast we all operate, across multiple time zones, and expectations for “instant communication,” having some simple tools and a few guidelines will help make that easier. Too many rules, too many tools and things will quickly fall apart.

We learned that the hard way here at Kerio. Which is why we created Samepage — to support building a collaborative culture and make us more effective. Today, we run all of Kerio using Samepage. Our 180 employees are based in six time zones across the globe. We rarely use email (it’s a terrible way to communicate). Our comments and discussions about our core business processes take place in Samepage, keeping context with its content. Samepage has reduced the time we need for meetings and kept our email inboxes pretty empty. The end result is our product development cycles are faster, and our customers and partners get the products they need more quickly.


Collaboration is a continuum — learn to use the aspect that’s most effective for your specific circumstance. If you want to become a collaborative culture, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. But you can start today by: modeling the collaboration continuum in your own work, identifying where you have cooperation, teamwork, and collaborations going on now, and giving your folks a few tools and thoughtful, simple rules to get on the collaboration path.

Do you want to take your team's collaboration to the next level? Get started with Samepage in less than five minutes - then use these quick videos to become a power user in no time.