Collaboration 101: A New Look at the Definition of Collaboration

Cooperative vs. Non-Cooperative Play                  Illustration by: Tracy Ma

Collaborate: to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.

We know what it’s supposed to mean, but what is collaboration? With a myriad of definitions and uses, the word appears in many contexts, and often with different interpretations. With elements of competition, co-operation, and compromise, we can see how subtle collaborations throughout our days make it possible to achieve our goals. To learn about collaboration, then, it seems much more valuable to seek out and learn from stories and examples of collaboration in daily human interaction. With so many situations that require, or at least enable collaboration, it seems plausible that we already have the skills and just need practice adapting those skills to different situations.

We can learn by studying examples of effective and ineffective collaboration, and seeing what works and what does’t. For example, simply by driving in traffic we are practicing collaborating. Equal parts competition and compromise, the concept of “right-of-way” is a structure that enables collaboration, and defines how everyone participating will interact with each other. In sports, the combination of co-operation and compromise make the game possible. Although we are competing against the other team, we also have to agree with our competitors to play by the same rules. Non-cooperative play results in nobody being able to play, as shown in the image above.

As the activity gets more complex, there is a more complex form of collaboration. Our traffic system, our healthcare system, our education system, even our business “system” exist as collaborative entities. The moon landing would not have been possible without a massively complex collaboration. Neither would a cure for smallpox. These systems are dependent on collaboration: intuitive, subconscious, or otherwise. If subtle, almost unconscious collaboration prevents total chaos in seemingly every group activity, then conscious, grand-scale collaboration is an incredibly valuable tool just waiting to be harnessed.

We seek to untangle and understand collaboration by sharing and learning from these stories, to find a way to harness the power of our collective intelligence and commitment, and so, we ask for your help. If we can practice and perfect our collaboration skills, we can solve more complex problems in increasingly innovative ways. If you have a story, an example, or even a question about collaboration, please share it. The more people participating, the more powerful the collaboration can be, so add your voice and your insights.

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