Young PMs should know that collaboration is more important than cooperation

Project management is the ultimate team sport. To be successful in this game requires that a number of things go right; and, one of the most crucial success factors is having a “well oiled” team committed to the end goal and working hard to achieve it.

In an interesting article I heard about from Kelli Sproles (a colleague of mine who works at IPS Learning) entitled There’s a Difference Between Cooperation and Collaboration, Ron Ashkenas writes that what we sometimes see as collaboration is really just cooperation among the participants, and that’s not altogether a good thing. Why? Because cooperation will only get you so far down the road whereas collaboration will get you to the finish line. But, it’s a lot harder to do.

Collaboration requires that we bring all our resources and skills together to work toward a common end goal. That’s easier said than done. Collaboration requires more than people willing to work together, share information, and cooperate. Ashkenas says collaboration “involves making tough decisions and tradeoffs……in order to adjust workloads across areas with different priorities and bosses.” People may be willing to cooperate, but when it comes to the tough decisions about how to allocate time and resources, that requires collaboration, or as I would say, cooperation on steroids!

Too often we confuse pleasant, cooperative, behavior, with collaboration. How many times have you requested help on a project from someone, who pleasantly says “sure,” only to discover they never did what you asked. When you followup with “how’s it coming along?” they say ‘my boss gave me something more important to work on,’ or, ‘I just didn’t have time to do it.’ I bet this has happened to you more than once. I know it has to me.


Based on his many years of experience, Ashkenas asserts that “most managers are cooperative, friendly, and willing to share information-but what they lack is the ability and flexibility to align their goals and resources with others in real time.” This can occur at all levels in an organization: from senior management to the rank and file. Where collaboration is especially critical is at the department head- and project management-levels because these are the folks that need to work very closely together to get everyone on the same page.

So, how do you do it? How do you make the leap from cooperation to collaboration? Ashkenas suggests two tactics.

one fingerFirst, make sure everyone understands and is committed to the goal. Then, get all the key players in a room and map out, from end-to-end, how the project is going to get done. Use wall-based processing, a fancy name for writing tasks and activities Post-it Notes and then pasting them on a large whiteboard. You can convert this later into your PPM software. By doing so, everyone will see what needs to get done, and when, in order to accomplish the goal. They also see how they fit in to the project. But the real value of this exercise are the discussions that occur while you’re “charting out” your project.

two fingersSecond, convene another session with everyone across the organization to “review, revise, and make commitments to this collaboration contract.” According to Ashkenas, a big mistake project managers make, and I think young project managers especially, is to engage in “serial collaboration” which means holding separate meetings with each group to gain approval thus cobbling together an agreement. In short, everyone needs to work on this together, not separately.

I relate very well to these two approaches and I think I would have been a more successful project manager earlier in my career had I done what Ashkenas suggests. I’m not a “big meeting” person. I prefer to work one-on-one or in small groups. As a result, I practiced serial collaboration for a number of years and relied on monthly or quarterly meetings to bring folks together. While I had my share of successes in project management, doing what Ashkenas suggests will yield better results earlier in your career.





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