Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dear Mr. Roget. . .

Look in any thesaurus and you're certain to see cooperation and collaboration listed as synonyms every time. But I would beg to differ. To me, cooperation has a much more passive character. It's what we ask of our toddlers when we're trying to wrestle them into their coats, boots and gloves."Will you please cooperate with me here?" It's a request that they not interfere with our efforts, that they stop struggling. While collaboration connotes something more active (chaotic? frenetic?). It suggests joint, purposeful effort and an expectation of participation. Don't get me wrong. I think both 'C's are generally positive activities and I encourage and appreciate both. But I think it's important that we not confuse them. If we can't tell the difference we risk misconstruing our own efforts. Here's my real life example of how I view the distinction.

When I was interviewing for the position as Executive Director of NELLCO in 2001 I made a presentation to the hiring committee. Before I started my remarks I handed a little stuffed Curious George toy that I had grabbed from my kids' toy box that morning to the person seated to my right (I think it was Blair Kauffman, who was hosting the interview at Yale) and just asked that it be passed around to each member. Then I launched into my presentation, during which I was also able to slip in a reference to Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies. I think it was the most fun I've ever had in an interview! In any case, eventually Curious George made his way back to me at the podium. That was my cue to illustrate the cooperation/collaboration divergence.

Each member of the hiring committee had dutifully and cheerfully complied with my request that they pass George around the room. They had cooperated with me, and with the people seated on either side of them. But not one of them understood the intention or the goal of the exercise. There was no communication, no communal decision-making, no shared expectations. There was no meeting of the minds. So while the group had clearly cooperated, there was no collaboration. Think I can persuade Roget?

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