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Collaboration and coordination are different—here’s when to use them

Caeleigh MacNeil contributor headshotCaeleigh MacNeil
March 4th, 2024
2 min read
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More collaboration isn’t always better. In fact, research from The Work Innovation Lab, a think tank by Asana, shows that too much collaboration can actually hold workers back. In a survey of over 1,500 workers, 29% of leaders said that the expectations put on employees to collaborate prevented them from completing their work. 

But while too much collaboration is bad, teams still need to work together to achieve business goals. The key is to incorporate more time-saving coordination instead of focusing on collaboration.

What is The Work Innovation Lab?

The Work Innovation Lab is a think tank by Asana that develops human-centered, cutting-edge research to help businesses evolve today to meet the growing changes and challenges of work.

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Coordination: Collaboration’s more efficient sibling

Coordination lets teams work independently by using pre-defined frameworks and ways of working. For example, submitting a design request is an act of coordination. There’s already a process in place, which makes it easy for teams to work together. 

On the other hand, collaboration is much more time-consuming. It involves developing something entirely new and often requires stakeholders to brainstorm, discuss potential solutions, and decide on a path forward. To continue the example above, determining the optimal process for handling design requests across your company is an act of collaboration.

Simply put, collaboration takes a lot of time and energy—and it’s not always necessary. By leaning into coordination instead, you can free up much-needed time for employees to focus on their work. 

When to use collaboration vs. coordination: Lessons from high-performing companies

According to research from The Work Innovation Lab, higher-performing companies strategically use coordination for certain activities and collaboration for others. This helps avoid dreaded collaborative overload, when teams are bogged down with back-and-forth communication—like status updates, attending meetings, and responding to emails and messages. 

Here’s how top companies break it down. 

When to use coordination 

The Work Innovation Lab found that higher-performing companies tend to rely on coordination for activities that can be largely specified in advance and performed independently using existing processes. This includes: 

  • Information transfer

  • Handoffs 

  • Project planning

  • Decision-making

While it may seem odd to use coordination for decision-making, The Work Innovation Lab hypothesizes that high-performing companies rely on decision-making frameworks like RACI and RAPID, which coordinate decision-making roles and specify them in advance. 

When to use collaboration

So, when does collaboration come into play? According to the research, high-performing companies use collaboration for two very important activities: brainstorming and problem-solving. 

  • Brainstorming: The goal of brainstorming is to produce something new. When done correctly, the brainstorming process produces ideas that a single person couldn’t have come up with on their own. In order for brainstorming to work, you need high levels of communication and collaboration between participants. 

  • Problem-solving: Research shows that teams solve problems faster and more effectively when they’re cognitively diverse. And to harness cognitive diversity, employees need to feel psychologically safe—able to voice ideas without fear of punishment or humiliation. Like brainstorming, fostering this kind of environment also requires high levels of communication and cooperation. 

Tips to choose the right approach

The Work Innovation Lab labels collaboration as “expensive,” meaning it requires a lot of communication and back-and-forth between employees. That means it pays to choose carefully between when you use collaboration and when you should save resources and use coordination instead. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself when making that decision. 

  1. What type of work activities are involved? If you need to come up with new ideas or processes, collaboration is likely required. But for simpler tasks like handoffs and approvals, coordination is a better bet. 

  2. Do the major components of the work align neatly with existing teams or functions? If there’s alignment, aim for coordination. If there’s a lack of alignment, collaboration is likely needed to make sure teams are on the same page about expectations, processes, and responsibilities before you begin.

  3. Do you require a new set of shared goals or performance metrics to achieve outcomes? If new goals and performance metrics are necessary, you’ll need to lean heavily on collaboration. But if you can achieve outcomes using existing teams, goals, and metrics, then you should focus on coordination instead. 

Download the full report

To learn more about how to differentiate between collaboration and coordination in your own company, download the full report.

An executive’s guide to high-value collaboration

In this research-backed playbook, get insights about when to use collaboration vs. coordination (and why that distinction matters)

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[LAB] Exec High Value Collab (image)

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