Collaboration is not always possible

Collaboration is not always possible

Collaboration is not always possible

One of the conclusions from the research on the Cooplexity Model (Zamora Enciso, 2018) was that collaboration is not always possible. It depends on the state of evolution of the team consciousness of the group. Groups that achieved better results were found to have passed through the three levels of the model: acquiring knowledge, building cohesion and self-coordination. Three degrees of possible collaboration appear in parallel with each level.

Three degrees of possible collaboration

In the first level, Alliance, everybody wins, and nobody loses. The agreement is natural, and nobody rejects it. It is accepted as soon as an opportunity for collaboration appears under these circumstances.

As the group evolves and the integration process follows its course, new opportunities for cooperation emerge. Although these opportunities do not harm anyone, they do create unequal benefits. As a result, the group usually reaches an agreement that sooner or later produces a kind of compensation or reciprocity. This is the interchange level, or what I call Cooperation. In daily life, we can consider win-win negotiations at this level. Negotiation is focused on evaluating a specific value and the corresponding compensations. This level of cooperation is valuable, although we still have room to produce better results for the group.

In the third level, the team covers individual and collective needs. The group is now considered a whole, system, and entity with its differentiating personality and particularities. Its members feel like a team in the full sense. They have made an essential, qualitative jump. It is the Collaboration level.

At this point, it is necessary to distinguish between cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation is linear, concrete and orientated towards an objective. In cooperative work, tasks are subdivided between the members, who work separately. Coordination is essential regarding who does what, how and when (Nezamirad, Higg, & Dunstall, 2005).

Collaboration is a creative process between two or more people with complementary abilities that interact to create a common understanding that nobody previously had and would not have been possible to acquire alone. Collaboration creates common understandings of a process, a product or an event. In this sense, there is nothing routine; it is something that did not previously exist (Schrage, 1990).

If cooperation needs coordination, collaboration needs self-coordination

Collaboration is a state that has many components, and one of them is cooperation. Cooperation is also about a common purpose, but it relates to a lower abstraction level, more operative. Collaboration is a creative process where the result is the emerging product, the consequence of interaction. If cooperation needs coordination, collaboration needs self-coordination.

Trust is the most critical factor at the Collaboration level. It ensures that, although actions could be contrary to individual interests, any decision will not be judged as transgressions or aggressions but rather as a search for a common benefit. Powered by trust, the common benefit pursuit will sooner or later include particular interests, will take them into account and, in the long term, will balance them.

At the Collaboration level, individual and common objectives lose their differentiation. They should be achieved together and in a balanced manner. Sometimes, the team is so cohesive that they ‘only’ think about global interests; this is not favourable, productive or sustainable. Individual needs should also be considered. This duality could be very clear from a conceptual perspective but difficult to take to reality. Looking after one’s interests is easy to do. Looking after common interests could also be possible, even at the expense of the individuals. The problem lies in reconciling both objectives in a balanced way. Unfortunately, there are no recipes here, as in most complex situations. It is not more or less than a case of obtaining a balance between individual and global interests.

When the group is fully integrated, it can perfectly pursue the balance of interests and know how to do it. Nevertheless, only after a proper process of evolution is this possible. At an earlier stage, any attempt to achieve a common benefit by the more collaborative participants is rejected when it is considered that individual interests are at risk. To collaborate in the long term, individuals should also achieve their objectives or have a reasonable expectation that the cost of collaboration will be compensated sooner or later.

The most selfish behaviour

When people's needs are independent, survival is reduced to win-lose competition, where the strongest survive. However, this does not occur when there are interdependencies. It is possible to say that in these cases, the most selfish behaviour is precisely the most collaborative because helping others will end in helping oneself. Furthermore, the group will reject with energy the abuse of resources to obtain individual yields. If this happened, the result for cohesion would be disastrous and lead to a regression to more individualist positions.

Usually, we think that those who only look after their interests are selfish. Sometimes, this assumption may not be entirely right. The degree of collaboration I observed in my research was directly related to the level of trust and risk perception. There is a natural tendency in all of us to cover risks that activate a series of self-protection mechanisms and push us to take individualist positions. When the group takes steps to increase the level of trust among its members and reduces in parallel the perceived risk of the decisions it makes, it becomes more capable of showing collaborative attitudes.

Learnings from the Prisoner’s Dilemma

In his work The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod contributes some ideas that we can perfectly apply here. Using the famous game ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’ created around 1950 by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher and later formalised with its current name by A.W. Tucker, Axelrod invited experts in game theory to a tournament. The competition consisted of sending programmes in which the participant should choose between making a cooperative decision or a non-cooperative one in a series of repeated game interactions. Among them all, the strategy called ‘Tit for Tat’ by Professor Anatol Rapoport of Toronto University always won. What was so surprising was that its strategy was also the simplest, in that the first decision was always cooperative and, after that, systematically repeated its opponent's decision (Axelrod, 1984).

As in the Tit for Tat strategy, a person who starts any activity cooperatively is allowing the system and advances more and go further in the processes of the Cooplexity Model. Likewise, the reciprocity concept, key in Axelrod’s work, appears as the consequence of the complementary interests. One can reject cooperation if the expectation of a return does not exist or there is no real and close perception that the cooperative effort will be compensated. That way, a person will cooperate if the other party cooperates and generates a common benefit. Conversely, he will not be cooperative if the other doesn’t generate the benefit.

When extrapolating these learnings to real teams, we have to consider that the size of the team plays against the perception of the individual contribution and the expectation of return. Also, it would be negative if the benefit of the cooperative effort is unequally shared among the members, contributing to a less clear expectation of reciprocity. When designing teams and compensatory policies, it will thus be necessary to divide a large group into smaller teams to improve this perception.


In the model, I describe three different levels of collaboration. The alliance is accessible to any series of individuals with coinciding interests. They take advantage of an opportunity without risks or significant costs.
The second level, Cooperation, would be accessible to those groups that have initiated integration processes and have a minimum level of trust among them, sufficient trust to sustain the negotiating process and establish compensations on equal terms. When the minimum level of trust is missing, negotiation cannot progress even though both parties consider a potential agreement beneficial.
Finally, the maximum level, Collaboration, breaks the idea of individuality and merges members into the concept of something bigger. It is the co-creation level when there is a symbiosis between members, taking care to generate mutual benefits.


  • Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
  • Nezamirad, K., Higgins, P. G., & Dunstall, S. (2005). Human collaboration in planning and scheduling. In 7th International Workshop on Human Factors in Planning, Scheduling and Control in Manufacturing. The Netherlands: The University of Groningen.
  • Schrage, M. (1990). Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration. Baltimore, MD, U.S.A.: Random House.
  • Zamora Enciso, R. (2020). Cooperation in complexity. Cooplexity, a model for collaboration in complexity in times of uncertainty and change. (Amazon)
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