I spent some time at Atlassian Headquarters in Sydney last week learning about what has made this Aussie tech firm one of the most successful software companies in the world. How did they build a culture that enables them to punch so far above their weight? One of the keys to their success is how well they do collaboration – both with their customers as well as with each other.

Their physical environment is beautifully set up to encourage and facilitate a wide range of human interactions – from the kitchen which is stocked with healthy food, to the Club Tropicana bar, to the ping pong tables, to the various spaces of different shapes and sizes. It has certainly worked for them.

But what do we really mean by collaboration? Have you ever found yourself using the word to describe an activity that is more accurately consultation or cooperation rather than true collaboration?

So I thought it was worth differentiating collaboration from other activities that often masquerade as collaboration – but aren’t.

I’ve come up with the table below to describe the various ways people can work together.


Let’s start at the very bottom which is the opposite of collaboration. Contention. This is where there is very limited possibility of producing good outcomes because the focus is on conflict. If people who work together are at this level, then far from being effective and creating value they are likely to be having a negative impact on their team and outcomes.


Marginally better than that is the next level which is Cynicism. This is where people are not in openconflict but nonetheless are disengaged with each other, with limited trust, openness and respect. Levels of commitment are low and the overall effectiveness is still in the negative. If these two lower levels form the majority of interactions among people in a team or between teams, then that would be a toxic workplace.


The tipping point comes at the next level which I’ve labelled Caution because it is where people are at least prepared to listen to each other but they are cautions and reserved in their interactions and dealings. The effectiveness score is 1 because they’re not producing negative outcomes even if there is not much focus on engagement. But it is a good starting point.


The next level is Consultation. This is where people demonstrably value dialogue and discussion. The focus in on conversation and the exchange of information. At this level people ask and answer questions, seek and offer insights and advice so the workplace as a result is much more productive and outcomes are good, hence the effectiveness rating of 2.


Above consultation is Cooperation. This is where people effectively work together with mutual respect. They go beyond conversation to voluntarily offering assistance in problem-solving. The focus is oncombining their separate and relative skill sets and expertise to deliver great outcomes. The effectiveness score is 4 as people working together in this way are highly productive.


Finally above cooperation is Collaboration. This is where people are focussed on genuine co-creation of outcomes which is where they produce something jointly for mutual benefit and value. It is characterised by active involvement and a sense of joint ownership and commitment on the part of all concerned. It is where respective skill sets and contributions are synthesised seamlessly. At this level people’s commitment to a project is at its highest because of the sense of shared ownership people experience in such an endeavour.

The difference between cooperation and collaboration is like the difference between a jigsaw puzzle and a painting. They can both be images of a beautiful sunset but with the jigsaw you can see how the separate pieces fit together and the boundary lines of each piece. But a painting is seamless and smooth – even if it has been created by a number of different people – you can’t tell where one person’s contribution starts and ends.

The reason I offer this layered model is because the word collaboration is very loosely used these days. It has become a buzz word because people want to be seen as collaborative. Consequently they will often claim collaboration when all they’ve done is simply listened to someone’s idea, (which is caution) or asked people for some input (which is consultation), or invited participation (which is cooperation). But they haven’t gone that final step to creating a genuine partnership in an endeavour.

A Final Caveat

Just because collaboration is at the top of the scale doesn’t mean that we should be striving for collaboration ALL the time. Much of our work can be well served through cooperation, consultation and caution. It depends on the nature of the task or project. We need to use our professional judgement as to which level is most appropriate for what we are doing. However one thing is for sure – contention and cynicism are never good.

Does your team have a healthy mix of the ‘above the line’ modes of working together? To find out more about how your team can operate more cohesively, email me for information about my Solution-Centred Teams program.

Until next time.


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