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When was the last time you worked on a project completely alone? I can’t even think of one. Collaboration has become so common in the workplace we rarely give it a second thought. Yet, we don’t approach every collaboration the same. The standard definition of collaboration as “the action of working with someone to produce or create something” is too broad and does us a disservice. We never just collaborate.

In my experience, there are three types of collaboration. Each has specific approaches and requires skills that are best suited to that type of work. As a leader, when you’re aware of the type of collaboration you need, you can structure the collaboration in ways that streamline the process, empower each person, and help your team achieve the goal with minimal stress and disruption.


The most integrated type of collaboration is true co-creation, where two or more people come together to develop a shared output. Co-creation occurs when you put your brains together, share and build off of ideas, find common ground and produce something new. Often, the participants in co-creation share ownership over whatever was developed.

My colleague and I co-created a new coaching program called Thriving Teams. The entire process unfolded over a number of weeks, but much of the time, we sat together and discussed elements of the program. Through the conversation, we’d ask questions to unearth assumptions and connect information to form insights. We’d play devil’s advocate and offer alternatives to push each other’s (and our own) thinking to new places. Prior to our working sessions, we would often take turns creating a straw model in order to provide a starting point for the conversation. Yet, this straw model was only a jumping off point. By the end of the meeting, we might have agreed to something completely different than what was on the original page, and that’s the beauty of co-creation. You sense-make, deconstruct and create together.

Use co-creation when:

  • Each person needs full ownership over the outcome. The experience of co-creation develops deep buy-in and attachment to the final result.

  • The the unique knowledge or skills of the participants creates real-time synergy. Reading a report does not enable the two-way flow of information or insights. Co-creation adds value through the interaction of participants.

  • You’re tackling a new challenge or problem that does not have a structure or past experience to reference. When there is no obvious way forward, co-creation helps the group see multiple perspectives and get more information in the room quickly and efficiently.

Skills for successful co-creation:

  • Deep, active listening. You need to listen to others’ ideas without judgment and be curious to explore and understand one another’s perspectives.

  • Mutual respect. Co-creation can be intense and intimate. Respect for each other and the process is critical to creating an honest, rich dialogue.

  • Willingness to compromise. Healthy conflict and disagreement are crucial to achieving a better outcome. You may be passionate, but you also need to center the energy around shared goals. It’s important to achieve consensus, where everyone can live with the decision, even if that means you need to compromise.


Coordination is the alignment of semi-independent work streams into a single final result. First, the team needs to be clear and aligned on what success looks like. Coordination then enables people to work in parallel in order to successfully achieve the goal. Think of coordination as a division of labor where people need to be communicating information in order to stay aligned, but the work itself is generally not interdependent.

My business, Meeteor, hosts multiple webinars each year. For each webinar, there are a series of workstreams that must get done, but the actions for each are generally independent of the other. One person on my team handles most of the logistics while another person tackles marketing. I’m primarily responsible for the content and presentation delivery. All of these efforts must be done in alignment with one another in order to produce a high quality webinar, but the tasks are mostly independent.

Use coordination when:

  • The workstreams and tasks are generally independent of one another. Coordination enables people to do their work regardless of how other’s are proceeding. There may be dependent tasks, but each person can clearly own success over their own work while also sharing in the overall success.

  • There is high expertise needed. Often, coordination requires specialized knowledge, skills or abilities. Value is generated by having each person contribute their specialization.

  • The team’s primary conversation is about alignment, not ideas. Team conversations generally focus on alignment of information rather than advice or enhancement of the work or deliverable. Of course there is opportunity to reflect on ideas, seek feedback and share challenges, but the predominant reason for meeting will be to align on progress.

Skills for successful coordination:

  • Effective communication and information sharing. Team members need clear and frequent communication in order to stay aligned. They should be proactive with sharing information, good and bad. Because each person functions independently, there must be transparency and access to information which can be supported via technology.

  • Mutual trust. Again, team members are working separately and therefore need to trust each other to do their best work. When people encounter challenges, instead of hiding them, they bring them to the team’s attention and seek support.

  • Good project management and clear role clarification. A shared workplan is essential to keeping everyone aligned, especially on those few dependent tasks and places where work streams overlap. When the actions and responsibilities are clear, it reduces ambiguity and prevents things from falling through cracks. It’s also helpful to have a single person in point to keep everyone aligned and ensure the final result achieves the goal.


Another common type of collaboration is contribution, in which multiple people enhance the work of an individual or small team. This happens by offering advice, feedback, asking questions, or directly enhancing a deliverable. Mostly, we see contribution as a way to elicit the best thinking or produce the ideal deliverable, but it’s also a way to prevent issues. There are times when problems could have been avoided if only we’d sought input from the right people.

This is the most common type of collaboration in my daily work. I regularly seek input from my colleagues on materials I’ve produced, such as this blog article. After I drafted the first version, two colleagues left comments and suggestions in the google doc. I then revised the article, sometimes accepting their changes, sometimes not, and occasionally re-writing whole sections due to their input. What you’re reading now is primarily my own work, but my colleagues contributed their thinking and effort to make the resulting article even better.

Another example is when I hand off a slide deck or white paper to our graphic designer who then adds her visual design skills to the copy. We often go back-and-forth a few times until we’re both satisfied with the finished material.

Use contribution when:

  • One person (or a small team) owns the outcome but will benefit from the input and advice of others. Not every project needs all participants to hold the same level of responsibility. It’s useful to have one person or a small group own the work while still having access to the perspectives or efforts of a broader group.

  • Gathering different perspectives will enhance the deliverable or avoid a problem. Whether it’s feedback from customers or running something by legal, the inclusion of different perspectives will likely increase the chances of success.

Specific skill/requirements for successful contribution:

  • Willingness to seek and take advice from others. The person who owns the deliverable must actively seek input even if it’s easier or faster to go it alone. They must seriously consider the input, especially when it is contradictory to their initial thinking. They are open to new ideas and curious to learn from others who hold different perspectives.

  • Willingness to share enrichments regardless of the result. Those offering input, in many cases, are not part of the decision-making which leads to the final result. They must be willing to share honestly while also accepting that the final result may not be what they recommend.

  • Clear decision-making method and responsibilities. The owner makes the final call (except in particular circumstances like legal), but does everyone understand that? The owner must clearly communicate how the input will be used, acknowledge the contributions so everyone feels their time and energy was well spent.


Working together enables us to achieve things we could never do alone. Take some time to think about which approaches to collaboration are appropriate for your work or projects. Be proactive in applying the optimal approach given each undertaking. Share the approach with the team and clarify how you’ll work together so everyone is aligned on expectations. There’s no best method for collaboration, and not every project needs a highly collaborative method like co-creation. When you apply the right approach for the circumstances, collaboration will be more enjoyable and more fruitful.

Optimize your time. Cultivate your team. Achieve your goals.

What approaches to collaboration do you use most often? Leave a comment below and share suggestions for practices that help your team collaborate successfully or tweet at me @mamieks.

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