July 20, 2016 | by Wayne Smith

Collaboration Vs. Cooperation, and the Importance of PM Leadership

A project manager’s (PM) leadership skills are best demonstrated when leading the project team to a high level of collaboration. Many organizations give little thought, effort, and investment to collaboration, other than implementing some groupware software applications marketed as “collaboration software.” Let us assure you, however, that without good PM leadership, even the best “collaboration software” is merely just a tool. It can be quickly down-graded into “vanilla groupware.” Groupware, if you are unfamiliar, is a software application designed to help achieve a common goal by facilitating the collective working of a number of different users. Its functionality typically tries to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of group communications, coordination, and conferencing. Some examples of these groupware applications include email, document management systems, instant messengers, project management applications, workflow tools, and social networks.

Some Definitions

As you know, most construction projects require utilizing resources from different teams, departments and organizations. It is frequent that these different organizations have other goals they are focused on, and even sometimes objectives that compete with those of the project at hand. The words “collaboration” and “cooperation” are often used interchangeably, but they are very different. Collaboration is the action of working together with others to achieve a common goal. Individuals who collaborate are voluntarily and totally committed to accomplishing the common goal without any mitigating circumstances. They not only freely share information, but they are actively involved by providing unsolicited suggestions and criticisms that they believe will help achieve the project’s objectives. They are genuine team players who are generous with their knowledge, time and effort. Cooperation consists of when two or more entities engage in an exchange that is mutually beneficial for all out of self-interest, instead of directly competing against each other. In the field of project management, people who are cooperating do so because they have been directed to, and they are complying with the request to make the project management project work. These individuals maintain their personal objectives with a degree of priority, and progress towards achieving these objectives is one of the criteria for project participation. Cooperators typically do not perform past the sharing the requested information and completing the assigned tasks. In fact, some even withhold pertinent information if it is not specifically requested by another member of the project team. They are more guarded of their knowledge, time, and effort and are not dedicated team players focused on the success of the project for the reason of the overarching goal. Instead, they help out because they have self-interest in the project for numerous possible reasons. Most Americans have been raised with the idea that competition is the quintessential behavior and is beneficial in all endeavors. This is not entirely true in project management. Competition between individuals or groups can be detrimental in certain situations. People and groups competing against each other to achieve a common objective typically do not work well together and do not share information freely even when they have been directed to. A good PM must be able to identify competitive behaviors when they arise and determine whether it is beneficial or harmful to the project.


Implementing the best “collaboration software” in the world will not improve collaboration unless the project stakeholders and team members want to freely collaborate. It is essential for the PM to understand the difference between collaboration and cooperation and be able to identify each. Confusing the two will always result in a less collaborative project than desired, and thereby a less quality end product. Therefore, an effective PM will select team members that have demonstrated a willingness to actively collaborate, not just passively cooperate with the team, and will lead his or her project team to operate in this way as common practice.