Stop settling. Collaborate instead of cooperate.

“We need you to help this team. They are struggling to deliver. But don’t worry; you’ll love this team. There is no conflict and they are willing to help each other.”

I was assigned as the ScrumMaster for this team many years ago, and this is how my boss described the team I’d be a part of. Every part of his statement was true because this team had settled. They settled for cooperation instead of working toward collaboration.

Cooperation: The actions of someone who is being helpful by doing what is wanted or asked for a common effort (source: Merriam-Webster)

Cooperation is valuable.

Unfortunately, leaders mistake cooperation for success in being a team.

In my experience, settling for cooperation tends to produce dynamics that impede delivery.

The cooperation mindset can often lead to parts of a project being owned by different groups within the team. While the team would agree they have a common goal, success is divided into specific project parts. If one group’s part of the project is completed, the checkbox for successful delivery for the portion they are responsible for is checked off. Whether or not they dive in to help other groups with different aspects of the project, success in this scenario is divided by group. This mindset is reinforced by rewards and consequences.

Example: Developers complete their tasks, and they hand off the product to be tested. The testers are overwhelmed by the amount of testing to do with the limited time remaining. The developers are willing to help the testing. However, when the deadline is missed, the testers missed the deadline. The developers finished their part. Developers have been successful and are rewarded, and testers have failed and have consequences.

Now one could argue, the issue here is leadership and that the entire team should fail and succeed together. I do not deny that is an aspect of the problem, but the mindset is another aspect of the problem. Let’s pretend that they hit the deadline in the example above. The original statement, “They are struggling to deliver,” tends to remain true.

On time delivery is not the definition of successful delivery.

Customer satisfaction determines delivery success. To achieve customer satisfaction, teams need to leverage the wisdom of crowds by working jointly together. They need to collaborate.

“Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably smart – smarter even sometimes than the smartest people in them.” (The Wisdom of Crowds – James Surowiecki)

Customer satisfaction is achieved via collaboration, not cooperation.

The collaborative mindset shifts to a shared team goal where groups within the team help each other because they are both essential to achieving the shared goal.

A study found that 97 percent of employees and executives agreed that the level of collaboration directly impacts the outcome of a task or project.

Collaboration: To work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor (source: Merriam-Webster)

Let’s go back to the example. If developers and testers collaborated on their tasks, what would be gained? In my experience, new ideas, improved quality, earlier detection of issues, etc.

The outcome is a product that was created jointly and not just a combination of parts. This shift will lead teams to successful delivery and satisfied customers.

Don’t let cooperation be mistaken for collaboration.


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Tricia Broderick

Tricia Broderick has more than 17 years of experience in software development. She is a certified Trainer From The Back Of The Room, ACP, PMP®, and Certified Scrum Trainer® (CST). Prior to joining Agile For All, she served as Director of Development, Agile Coach and Manager of Project Management for numerous companies, laying the groundwork to shift teams from one-year product cycles to daily delivery of high-quality software and services. Tricia is a frequent keynote speaker at national Agile conferences, and regularly shares Agile leadership insights through her well-known blog, Lead to the Edge.

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