Teamwork vs. Collaboration

In Action on August 17, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Every time I speak about collaboration, I usually end up in a discussion about teamwork. People want to know why their “team” is not churning out the work that is needed.

You know, I will be the first to admit it… I am not a team player. When people hear me say that they inevitably screw up their face, roll their eyes and snort some version of “yeah…right.” But really it is true. I am more of a collaborator.

We have all heard the saying “There is no I in teamwork” and this is exactly why I think the concept of teamwork falls short for me. A group or community is made up of individuals. To only recognize the parts of that person that fits in with the group or team, can diminish and reduce the potential of the work that can be produced.

The most important thing in any collaboration is being able to know the perspective, needs and desires of those you are working with. This is probably one of the main ways that collaboration differs from teamwork. In teamwork, there is the assumption that everyone is on the same page. Everyone is working together and is aware of it. Working together is the goal, and the goal is a result of how well the team works.

Teams are also hierarchical. With newcomers and leaders and a flow of communication that is largely linear. Information flow is either top up or top down. But the important piece of this is that there is a top and a bottom. I don’t know about you, but I have found little in life is that straight forward and to act as if it is means that much is lost in the communication of the work being attempted.

The focus of collaboration is the process. The act of collaboration creates and shapes the work that must be done to finish a project to completion. As the work progresses the goal is defined. It is more like a living document: it is dynamic and flexible.

The focus of teamwork is the goal, the process is just a means to that end. One person cannot square off against another team and succeed no matter how talented they are. In teamwork, you need a team.

One of the most powerful aspects of collaboration is that not everyone involved has to agree to collaborate. I know this sounds crazy…it’s true. Since the point of collaboration is about working with others, not everyone in this relationship has to agree to collaborate. There are times when we will come up against a seemingly immovable person who will not budge from their narrow view of “how things should be done”, however, even this individual can be effectively worked with in the scope of collaboration. In fact, frequently working with these individuals can give us the most realistic glimpse of how we will have to work in order to succeed.

Collaboration is an intentional act. It is an inter-subjective space (I love this concept. It is the space between subjective and objective, in which we all come together. It is actually the relationship created by our collaboration. It is as huge as we make it. It is as functional as we work it. It is solely defined by our interaction and relationship.

Dena Plotkin
Psychotherapist and Collaborative Strategist

  1. I love your distinction between teamwork and collaboration. I’m a huge proponent of identifying and honoring the unique talents of each individual on a project team. My work as “The Project Whisperer” is based on the notion that projects succeed because of people, not process or methodology. The most valuable contribution a project Manager can make is to support each individual, and the group as a whole, in their journey through the project.

  2. Whenever I see “team player” in a employment ad, I read, “Willing to work for free if necessary.”

  3. I have been looking for a good explanation that would help me understand these two terms better for ages. Thank you for making it so clear! It all makes sense now. Great post!

  4. […] something, keep looking and you’ll find the answer. In this case, I came across ‘The Work 101’s Blog‘ where I found a clear explanation about the differences between ‘collaboration’ […]

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