The 3 tests of real collaboration

How to check if your collaboration is really working:
The first test: Is it working for us?
The second test: Is it working for me?
The final test: Does it feel fair?


Much has been written about why people collaborate and the pay-offs. Key concepts include Tit for Tat and The Prisoners Dilemma discussed in Dysfunctional teams: bioteam them.

In this article I introduce three critical tests which I call the '3 greens check' by which any collaboration should be continuously judged by all its participants:

Test1: Is it working for us?
Test2: Is it working for me?
Test3: Does it feel fair?

Does your collaboration pass the 'three greens' check

Every time an airline pilot selects the undercarriage to 'down' they hold their breath to see three green lights which tell them it is safe to land.

Then as they continue their final approach the runway threshold will be indicated by green lights with the end of the runway illuminated by red lights.

Imagine 3 parties A, B and C who individually can achieve a, b and c respectively:

Collective Success = 1-green

If by collaborating together they achieve d where d > a+b+c then overall it is a successful collaboration.

I call this a 1-green collaboration.

However we know that there are examples of good overall collaborations (1-green) which still fail miserably because one or more of the parties were not happy.

Individual Success = 2-greens

Therefore we also need to consider the collaboration outcome from the perspective of each of the 3 parties.

So if A achieves a+ where a+ > a then it is good from their perspective

If they only achieve a or a- then it is not good from their perspective.

In fact this is the risk of collaboration in a nutshell - you already have 'a' - by collaborating you hope to achieve 'a+' but the risk is you may end up with 'a-'.

So a good collaboration achieves d (>a+b+c) AND all of the parties achieve a+ individually.

I call this a 2-greens collaboration.

Strictly speaking not all parties have to achieve a+ - however the ones that do not are likely to leave or become passive freeriders.

This can destroy the overall collaboration by eliminating key resources.

Perception of Fairness = 3-greens

However even these 2-green collaborations can fail if there is a perception that one party has done a lot better than another.

So if A perceives that B has achieved b++ which is much greater than their a+ then it will cause resentment.

Yes my pie may be bigger by collaborating - but yours is enormous so I am not happy.

I am prepared to lose my benefits rather than see you taking more than your fair share.

So where all the parties also perceive fairness I call this a 3-greens collaboration.

This is discussed further in Why do humans cooperate which describes how, in human society, without perceived fairness cooperation breaks down.

There is also some interesting research on animal behaviour which shows that perception of fairness is a universal concept which is shared across many species and not just humankind. See, for example, The economics of cooperative behavior - HOW LIVING CREATURES DO BUSINESS

To sum up

There are 3 questions everyone should ask and answer for themselves at the end of each collaborative meeting - did it work for us all, did it work for me and does it feel fair?

A good 3-greens collaboration needs to produce three things:

  1. A collective outcome which is greater than the individual player outcomes combined - 1-green
  2. A better individual outcome for the majority of the players and a worse outcome for none of them - 2-greens
  3. A perception in the participants that the individual player’s outcomes are all in proportion and fair - 3-greens

For a very rigorous and thorough treatment of the complexity of collaboration involving multiple parties read The Complexity of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod

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Really interesting. We are working on the cooperation-competition issue inside sportive teams, and we have founded that perhaps the 1st and 2nd question have grey zones between the "yes" or the "not" response, attending the fact that one player may be share personal and team objectives at the same time. If we may use a 5 point scale to answer...

Posted by: Alex Garcia | October 2, 2007 8:00 PM

Hi Alex

Yes thats a really good idea especially if you could get that response immediately the meeting ended in a non-threatening way.

I have used technology to do this very thing using mobile phones - email me directly if you would like to discuss further.



Posted by: Ken Thompson | October 2, 2007 8:10 PM

Hi Ken, Very good charactarization of any collaboration between equals. We are discussing about setting up collaboration between academic and private professionals in order to help growth companies. I know academic guys tend to be a bit jealous about their research and same goes with other professionals. How to get these guys work together?

Posted by: Ilkka Yli-Ojanpera | November 23, 2007 11:03 AM

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