Good collaboration: the critical unspoken question

When a group reviews how well they are collaborating they usually discuss two questions: Is it working for us? and Is it working for me? I suggest they have missed a third totally crucial question, Does it feel fair?

The Big Missing Question

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

An earlier version of this article was originally published on on September, 2007

About the Author

Ken Thompson is an expert practitioner in the area of bioteaming, swarming, virtual enterprise networks, virtual professional communities and virtual teams and has published two landmark books:

Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature's Best Designs

The Networked Enterprise: Competing for the future through Virtual Enterprise Networks

Ken writes the highly popular bioteams blog which has over 500 articles on all aspects of bioteams (aka organizational biomimicry) - in other words how human groups can learn from nature's best teams.

Ken is also founder of an exciting European technology company Swarmteams which provides unique patent-pending bioteaming technologies for all shapes and sizes of groups, social networks, business clusters, virtual/mobile communities and enterprises. Swarmteams enables groups to be more responsive and agile by fully integrating their mobile phones and the web with bioteam working techniques. The latest Swarmteams implementation is SwarmTribes which helps musicians and bands form a unique collaboration with their fans for mutual benefit.

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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...

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.



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?

@Ilkka With academics I have found that it helps to highlight the issues that face a group in a simple format and have relevant facts on hands that support various positive conclusions.

Then centre the discussion on "what do you want to do"? - each person should set their preferred direction based on their deep sense of what is important - they are hired for deep expertise. Avoid phrasing of plans in terms of which course they wan't to teach - they are already compromising at that point.

And scan for a configuration that can bring everything about satisfactorily. The difficult is that most academic groups have been so badly managed their conflict goes back a century or two and you will still have to manage the configuration to its conclusion.

@Ken, I like the green lights. I think HR could use a simple dashboard. Which teams in the company are showing green lights. HR as traffic control. Mmm, I like that one.

Will be in London on Mondays and Thursdays for the next four months, if you want to link up.

Swarm for HR - that could work too.

Hi Jo

Thanks for another excellent and practical contribution

From my limited experience it takes a very special skill to manage "academic collaboration" - its almost an oxymoron given the system they inhabit and all the backstabbing/distrust they have endured!

I have noted your availabilty re London - I tend to avoid mondays and
fridays - will let you know when I next plan to be there

Best Regards


thanks for this and other articles. find them useful. our project is working towards enhanced collaboration and strengthened institutions.


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