The Three Levels of Cooperation
By Sue Dyer
growing trend in business is Co-opetition. Co-opetition is a buzzword
coined to describe cooperative competition (several people take credit
for creating the word). Cartels and trade associations are well known
examples where companies work together despite the fact that they are
fierce competitors. Examples are everywhere: Microsoft and Apple are
building closer ties on software development; Peugeot and Toyota are creating a new city car for rope. Basically, you work in
“partnership” with another company to enhance both of your
businesses and to create a competitive advantage. I’ve been calling
this “strategic partnering” for over twenty years.
come to realize that most people, teams and organizations settle for a
very low level of cooperation when they develop strategic
partnerships. They could significantly improve their results by
pushing the envelope of what’s possible. Come along with me and see
how this works.
How about arm wrestling with me? The
objective is to get as many points as possible. Here are the rules –
one point is scored for each touch to the table, no talking allowed,
we have 20 seconds. On your marks, get set, go! Wow, you are tough. I
couldn’t budge your arm. I’m sure glad you weren’t able to get
any point by pinning my arm either.
the hundreds of times I’ve done this exercise with teams, most pairs
don’t get any points, just as we didn’t, but the highest any pair
has scored is 200 points. How can there be such a huge difference?
What was our objective – to get as many points as possible. In order
to maximize the number of points we would need to cooperate (as the
high scorers did).
then, why doesn’t everyone just do that? Because we all know how to
arm wrestle. And when we arm wrestle we are adversaries. We are
supposed to try to win, or at least not lose. Because we see ourselves
as adversaries we fail to see what might be possible.
Level One – Cooperation:
Here you realize that you can optimize
the number of points you can get by cooperating. You
begin to cooperate. It is one point for me and one
point for you. Alternating back and forth to make sure the points are
Level Two – Collaboration:
You have a breakthrough and realize that if you touch just your arm
(or just your partners arm) you can make even more points. So
we begin to collaborate. We move our arms up and down
together and double the number of points we earn.
Three: Co-Creation: This is
working well, so we decide to really put our muscles into it and see
how many points we can rack up. So
we begin to co-create
points by jointly moving our arms very rapidly up and down (just
barely off the table each time). We quadruple the number of points
that we earn. The Three Levels Of Cooperation are available to all
teams. Here are five tips for pushing cooperation to the next level.
Tip #1: Clarify Roles and
Responsibilities: You must
be very clear on what you are trying to achieve by working together.
And you must be very clear on the role and responsibilities that each
party has for contributing to the achievement of those objectives.
Strategic partnerships break down when expectations become misaligned
or when either party doesn’t know what to expect. When you are
really acting like a team, the lines between organizations become
difficult to see.
Tip #2: Commit To Being Fair:
The foundation of trust in a strategic partnership is a commitment to
fairness. If you know that no matter what issues pop up you will
always be fair with one another, then TRUST will exist and grow. It is
when one side feels something “unfair” has happened that causes
trust to erode. So, high-trust relationships are built on looking for
the “fair” solution to each issue. When all team members have
confidence that they will be treated fairly, there is nothing they can
Tip #3: Get Off Your Buts:
Judgments impair our ability to communicate. They often sound like
“Yes, but that’s not what I want”, or, “Yes, but that will
never work!” When you hear “yes, but” in your head you have
stopped listening. Worse yet, you are going to be working on your
“rebuttal”. So in an instant, in your head, you’ve just became
an adversary. Instead of judging, listen to understand where the
person is coming from and what they need.
Tip #4: Create Account-Ability:
It is important to see whether or not the parties feel the strategy is
working. It is very important to make sure that the partners have the
ability to tell each other the truth, in a manner that does not damage
relationships. A monthly scorecard can offer anonymous feedback
allowing the team members to see where they stand with each other and
on the objectives.
Tip #5: Plan For Disagreements:
Nothing happens exactly as we plan. There will be disagreements along
the way. What is important is how the team deals with the
disagreements. Do you work together to find new ways of doing things?
Or, do you damage relationships so that you no longer want to work
together? By creating a conflict resolution process before you have
any conflicts your team members will know what to do when the
inevitable conflict breaks out.
that there are three levels of cooperation, I hope that you challenge
your team to reach new levels. In a strategic partnership there is no
activity that can provide you with a better return on your investment.
Try talking with your team about the three levels of cooperation and
working to get a commitment to move to the next level on your next
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