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Teamwork or Collaboration? What’s the Difference?

We all think we understand what collaboration is, we all think we understand what it means, if this is true then how come we constantly read accounts of it failing? Well this is not the case to quote Andrew Campbell’s Harvard Business Review article, “Collaboration is misunderstood and overused.”

Yes. Turns out that most of the time, we confuse collaboration and teamwork. The two are not interchangeable.

Teamwork – Collaboration, What’s the Difference?


According to Campbell, “teams are created when managers need to work closely together to achieve a joint outcome. Their actions are interdependent, but are fully committed to a single result.”

Makes sense. Most of the time, so long as a team “has a strong leader with authority to resolve disputes” and coordinate action, teams work well. However, let me remind you that this is not collaboration. The key for a successful team lies in its leader. You can have an ineffective, argumentative team but so long its leader has power and authority, odds are the team will be successful. We have all been in these situations before and when engaging in teamwork it really depends on the leader. There is a certain framework all take part in with expected rules and regulations when engaging in teamwork.


Collaboration according to Campbell is something completely different.  Collaborators usually have some shared goals that are only a smaller part of their overall responsibilities. Unlike teams, collaborators cannot rely on a leader to resolve differences, and cannot walk away from each other when they do disagree. So, collaboration is this relationship of give and take between its participants.

So Teamwork or Collaboration? Which Should I use?

According to Campbell, it’s best to avoid relying on a collaborative relationship except in the rare occasion when a company objective is important enough to warrant some collaborative action, but not important enough to warrant a dedicated team.

And that makes sense; collaboration is a good middle ground tactic. Establishing teams use up lots of internal resources, so its best to use them only when the objective is of extreme importance. Because of the very nature of collaboration, it makes sense to use it when a project is greater than any one individual’s expertise but isn’t so important that you want to pull dedicated resources to ensure it’s completion.
When deciding whether a collaborative relationship is really necessary, assess if it’s really necessary and if the conditions for success exist. Campbell warns that you should not think of collaboration as a permanent solution. Instead, you should be looking to transition to an easier from of interaction, such as a customer-supplier relationship. This way in these other forms of interaction there exists clear mechanisms for resolving disputes.

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