Collaboration is not always possible

Collaboration is not always possible

Collaboration is not always possible

One of the conclusions that came as a result of the research of the Cooplexity Model (Zamora Enciso, 2010) was that collaboration is not always possible. It depends on the evolution that a group has regarding team consciousness. The groups with better results passed positively through the three levels of the model: acquiring knowledge, building cohesion and self-coordinate. Three degrees of possible collaboration appears in parallel with each level.

Three degrees of possible collaboration

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

While the group evolves and the integration process follows its course, new opportunities for cooperation come up and although not harming anyone, do create unequal benefits. Here is where the group usually reaches agreements that produce sooner or later a kind of compensation or reciprocity. It is the interchange level or what I call Cooperation. In day-to-day life, we can consider the win-win negotiations are at this level. Negotiation is focused on evaluating a specific value and the correspondent compensations. The level of cooperation is right although we have still space to produce better results for the group.

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

At this point, it is necessary to make an essential distinction between cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation is linear, concrete, oriented to an objective. In cooperative work, the 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 persons, with complementary abilities that interact to create a common understanding that nobody previously had and would not have been able to acquire alone. Collaboration creates common contents about a process, a product, or an event. In this sense, there is nothing routinised. 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 also is about a common purpose but 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 in the Collaboration level as assures 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 that includes the particular interest, takes it into account and finally balances it.

In the Collaboration level, the individual and common objectives lose their differentiation. They should be achieved together and in a balanced manner. In some cases, the team is so cohesive than they “only” think regarding global interests. It is not favourable, neither productive or sustainable. Individual attention should also be considered. In reality, this dichotomy is sometimes proposed in a precise manner from a conceptual perspective but hardly defined from an operational point of view. Looking after one’s interest is easy to do. Looking after common interest could also be identified even at the expense of the individuals. The problem lies in reconciling both objectives in a balanced way. Unfortunately here, as in the majority of complex situations, there are no recipes. Neither more nor less it is a case of obtaining a balance between individual and global interests.

When the group is fully integrated, it is perfectly able to pursue the balance of interests and know how to do it. Nevertheless, only after a proper process of evolution, this is possible. Previously, any attempt to achieve common benefit by the more collaborative participants is rejected when considering that individual interest is 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 are not interdependent, survival is reduced to win-lose competition, where the strongest survives. However, in complexity, this is not applicable. Being interrelated cause the most selfish behaviour which is precisely the most collaborative. Helping others will end in helping myself because of the interdependence. Even more, the group will reject the use of resources with the sole aim of obtaining individual yields. If this happens, the result for cohesion is disastrous and produces regressions to more individualist positions.

Usually, we could think that those who only look for their interests are more 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 the perception of risk. There is a natural tendency in all of us to cover risks that activate a series of self-protection mechanisms and pushes us to take-up individualist positions. In the measure that the group increases the level of trust among its members and reduces in parallel the perceived risk of the decisions it takes, it becomes more capable of showing collaborative attitudes.

Learnings from the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Robert Axelrod in his work, The Evolution of Cooperation, contributes to 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 programs in which the participant should choose between making a cooperative decision or a non-cooperative one in a series of repeated interactions of the game. Among them all, the strategy called “Tit For Tat” by Professor Anatol Rapoport of the Toronto University always won. Which was also surprising was that its strategy was also the most simple. It consisted in that the first decision was always cooperative while after it systematically repeated the decision of its opponent (Axelrod, 1984).

As in the Tit For Tat strategy, a persona that starts any activity in a corporative way, is giving an opportunity to the system, and advances more and goes further in the processes of the mentioned Cooplexity model. Likewise the reciprocity concept, key in the Axelrod work, appears as the consequence of the complementary interests. One can reject cooperation if the expectation of return does not exist or there is no real and close perception that the cooperative effort will be compensated. That way, a person will be cooperative if the other party is cooperative as well and generates common benefit. Contrariwise, he will not if the other doesn’t.

When extrapolating these learnings to real teams, we have to take into account that the size of these play 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, thus it will 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, the Cooperation, would be accessible to those groups that have initiated integration processes and have minimum trust among them. Sufficient trust to sustain the negotiating process and the establishment of compensations on equal terms. When the minimum level of trust is missing negotiation cannot progress even though both parties consider a potential agreement as beneficial.
Finally, the maximum level of Collaboration breaks the idea of individuality merging members into the concept of something bigger. It is the co-creation level when there is a symbiosis between members taking care mutually generating crossing 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. (2018). Cooplexity: A model of collaboration in complexity for management in times of uncertainty and change (Third edit). Barcelona: (Amazon)

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