“Our team needs to collaborate more.”
“We need to have tight coordination on this effort.”
How are these two different? While collaboration and coordination are often used as synonyms, there is an important difference between the two. Picking the wrong one will lead to frustration, slower progress, and more risk
Co-Ordinate and Col-Laborate
To understand the difference, let’s break these two words down. They both start with the prefix co (or col), which means to do something together. The word ordinate means to put in order, or to plan. So co-ordinate means to plan together. “Laborate” is to labor, or work. So collaborate means do the work together. If we’re coordinating, we’re planning together. If we’re collaborating, we’re doing the work together. So when do we need each?
When to Coordinate
Coordination is the right approach when we are doing work that can be planned, and once the plan is done, we’re not going to learn something new as we execute the work. It’s predictable, cause and effect are linear. In the Cynefin sense-making framework, we would coordinate when the work is firmly in the Complicated domain.
When to Collaborate
Collaboration is the right approach when we are going to learn more about the work only by doing it. We can’t plan away the uncertainty and risks. There are too many interdependent, moving pieces to predict the right outcome or how to line all the pieces up. We’re doing something for the first time. The work depends on human preferences and predictions about future behavior. In Cynefin, this is where the work has some core complexity to it.
What This Means for Teams
Teams coordinating predictable work come together to analyze the situation, plan the right output, and break down their plan into individual tasks. They put those tasks in the right order, assign them to the people that should execute, then go their separate ways to do the work.
As long as everyone executes their tasks well, everything will come together at the end of the plan just the way we predicted. There is minimal need for team interaction during the execution phase. Any interruptions, including meetings, new requests, requests for feedback or help, are reducing productivity.
That all works as long as the work is actually predictable. If it turns out to have any emergence to it, this approach will get us in trouble. No one has planned to be available to re-plan if something new is discovered. Commitments have been made, and we are *very* hesitant to adjust the plan since a small change ripples out through all the dependent tasks, blowing up everyone else’s plans.
How Collaboration is Different
When we structure our team to collaborate around complex & emergent outcomes, we don’t plan what we’ll do over the long term. We know that kind of plan will blow up quickly. Instead, we plan how we’ll work together to cause our understanding to emerge. Sometimes this means literally doing the work all together in a room (physically or virtually). Sometimes it’s splitting into pairs or small groups to tackle a key piece of the work. This is the purest form of collaboration.
Other times, the work is complex but will still benefit from some individual solo effort. Creating an episode of the Humanizing Work Show is a good example. Each team member has some specialized skills that contribute to a great episode. We’ll come together to pick a topic, decide who will write a first draft of an outline or high-level script, who will create graphics, whether other components will be incorporated and how we’ll get those assets together, etc. Once everyone knows their role, we go our separate ways to get started.
“But wait, isn’t that just coordinating?” I hear you asking.
Sort of, but with three critical differences: availability, single piece flow, and feedback loops.
The last thing we often say before doing our solo work is “ping me on Slack if something changes or you need a review.” As Richard writes the text, the right shape and focus for the episode may shift, changing how we should visualize it. Or as Peter creates the graphics, a fuzzy concept may get clearer, impacting how we should talk about it. The work is emergent. Since we expect this to happen, we are communicating that we are available to get back together on very short notice to address emergence together. It’s not an interruption, it’s an expectation. If and when that happens, one of us will message the other something like “as soon as you come up for air, I’ve got an idea to run by you about the second section…” We don’t want to interrupt someone else’s flow state, but if they’re flowing on something that should change, it’s worth the nudge.
Single Piece Flow
The second key difference is that we are doing solo work on different parts of the same single output. Richard isn’t off writing the next four scripts while Peter creates graphics for each one. We are focusing on a single clear output and moving different parts of it forward separately. This is rarely more than a day of solo work, even on much larger efforts than an episode, and it’s often 20 minutes to an hour before we’re ready to come back together and check in. We’re not planning out multiple steps then executing solo.
Finally, as we do our solo work, we are trying to get it “ready for feedback,” not “ready to ship.” We’re better off getting a quick draft to the rest of the team for feedback rather than getting it polished and ready. Polishing something that is going to change from the feedback would be wasteful. After getting feedback, we are probably ready to incorporate the advice and opinions and start to polish it up. But when we acknowledge the emergent nature of the work, we plan to do quick small slices and test them with the team as soon as possible.
Most of our clients have enough complexity to their work that it makes sense to optimize their org structures, workflows, and systems for collaboration. Structure teams so a team has all the skills needed to tackle a complex problem together. Coordinate between teams to keep them aligned around larger goals. Choose workflows like Scrum that build in short feedback loops and low levels of work-in-progress. Select and configure tools to make it easy for people to work together.
This, by the way, is the core thread that connects all of our courses. Leading Organizational Transformation teaches leaders how to create an organization that supports collaborative, empowered work. The 3 Jobs of Management is about the manager’s role in an organization with empowered, collaborating teams. Agile for Teams and Team Launch Sequence show team members how to thrive on that kind of team—participants often say things like, “oh, this is what it’s like to actually collaborate with my teammates.” And Certified Scrum Product Owner and Certified ScrumMaster are about how to contribute on a collaborative team in those unique and challenging roles.
If your organization is doing complex, meaningful work, and you’d like help building systems for effective collaboration and coordination, join one of our public courses or talk with us about bringing our training and coaching to your organization.