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The right—and wrong—ways to collaborate, according to research

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia Martins
February 1st, 2024
1 min read
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In the world of business, collaboration has become a buzzword. However, more collaboration doesn't necessarily equate to better collaboration. In fact, workers today collaborate 50% more than they did just 12 years ago, leading to a phenomenon known as collaborative overload. 

To learn more about collaboration, The Work Innovation Lab, a think tank by Asana, partnered with ICF—a global advisory and digital services provider that helps its clients solve their most complex challenges, navigate change, and shape the future—and collaboration expert, Carlos Valdes-Dapena, to survey over 1,500 workers, 70% of whom were managers and executives.

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 the future of work.

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Here’s what they found:

Collaboration vs. coordination: Understanding the difference

The term "collaboration" has been used so frequently that it has lost meaning. We say collaboration when we mean teamwork, coordination, cooperation—the list goes on. Research agrees—The Work Innovation Lab found that 20% of leaders believe collaboration is the same as coordination, or don't know the difference. 

Is it the same? We argue it isn’t—and survey respondents agreed. The more senior the executive, the more likely they were to know that there’s a difference between collaboration and coordination.

Defining collaboration

Collaboration involves developing something fundamentally new and through new ways of working. It requires high levels of cooperation between individuals and teams who jointly own creating a new outcome together. 

Defining coordination

Coordination involves using existing ways of working, where tasks can mostly be pre-specified, and individuals and teams can maintain independent operations.

The collaboration conundrum

The trouble leaders are running into today is they frequently turn to collaboration, without asking what the goal—and necessary working style—should be. Collaborative teams can achieve incredible results, but they also run the risk of moving slower because they’re creating new processes from scratch. Surveyed leaders agree; collaboration has its time and place in the workflow, but great leaders are those who know when to deploy coordination, so they can save collaboration time for work that matters.

How coordination can build more efficient workflows

Even when leaders don’t necessarily understand the difference between collaboration and coordination, they still implicitly know something is wrong with the way they’re working. The Work Innovation Lab found that 29% of leaders say that the expectations put on employees to collaborate (like meetings and duplicative collaboration tools) prevent them from completing their work. 

This is where coordination comes into play. Tasks that involve information transfer, project planning, and handoffs can be specified in advance and performed independently using existing operations and processes. This increases efficiency and saves resources for more involved collaboration activities like brainstorming and problem solving.

The power of coordination

One of the most surprising learnings from the survey is that high performing companies are more likely to use coordination, rather than collaboration, for decision making. This might sound counterintuitive, but understanding the difference between collaboration and coordination can significantly impact your company's productivity and bottom line. 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

High performing companies use collaboration and coordination to maximize performance, profitability and innovation. Learn how you can do the same.

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