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What is Collaboration? Getting Beyond Cooperation

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Written by Melissa Laun

As an educator deeply committed to the growth and success of administrators, teachers,

and students, I have embarked on a journey to make a positive impact in education. With

certifications in General Education, Special Education, and School Administration, my

expertise spans various domains within the education field. Today, as the CEO and Founder

of Karaton Consulting, I am dedicated to driving improvement at all levels of education.

Through my blog, the Charcuterie Quote Board Blog, I offer weekly servings of insight into

carefully selected and curated quotes to serve up in three distinct sections: "The Meat," "The

Cheese," and "The Olives." Each section delves into the essence of the quote, adds a

personal touch, and brings unexpected perspectives to the table.

Collaboration, a topic that resonates deeply with educators, is our focus today. Collaboration

permeates different aspects of the educational landscape, contributing to the collective

growth, success, and continuous improvement of schools and students. We hear and see

collaboration through PLCs, curriculum development, student support services, and almost

all aspects of school leadership. So let’s explore one of my favorite quotes on collaboration to

provide some context and connection to schools.

THE MEAT (The Main Idea): When discussing collaboration, Adam Kahane’s words from his

book “Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don't Agree With or Like

or Trust” provide insights into the true essence of collaboration. Kahane emphasizes the

importance of creating a safe and inclusive space for collaboration, where participants can

overcome their differences and engage in meaningful dialogue. His strategies and

frameworks for navigating challenging collaborations and transforming conflict into

productive outcomes are invaluable resources in today's diverse educational landscape. One

of his notable quotes resonates deeply: “Collaboration is not about gluing together

existing egos. It's about the ideas that never existed until after everyone entered the

room.” These words challenge us to go beyond a simplistic understanding of collaboration

and explore its transformative potential. At its core, collaboration is simply the act of

working with someone, but its true power lies in the various levels of engagement and the

psychological safety it fosters. The quote suggests that collaboration creates a dynamic

environment where new and innovative ideas can emerge. It implies that the act of

collaboration itself generates fresh insights and possibilities that wouldn't have existed if

each person had stayed in their own separate space or role.

THE CHEESE (Added Depth): Digging deeper, how can we essentially score a collaboration?

How do we know if collaboration is healthy or harmful? In my 20 plus years of working on

teams, at times, I have worked alongside people and never felt safe enough to give 100% of

my ideas. It felt like there was a barrier, a hesitancy to fully express myself. It was a

collaboration on the surface, but lacking the psychological safety and deeper engagement

necessary for true innovation to thrive. I wasn’t able to give all of me and that more than

likely kept the other person closed off as well. On the other hand, there have been times

when the floodgates of ideas opened, and I felt a sense of freedom and trust within the

collaborative partnership. These were the moments when collaboration reached its full

potential, eclipsing mere cooperation. Ideas flowed without fear of criticism or idea theft, as

trust and mutual respect formed the foundation of our collaboration.

So, how do we differentiate between these types of collaboration? By definition, both

scenarios meet the basic definition of collaboration. However, it is essential to recognize that

there are certain elements that go into healthy collaborations. Every person enters

collaborative experiences asking these questions:

  1. Am I psychologically safe? Healthy collaboration requires an environment where individuals feel secure to express themselves openly, take risks, and share their ideas without the fear of judgment or negative repercussions.

  2. Can I trust this person/group of people? Trust is a critical element of collaboration. Trust allows individuals to have confidence in their collaborators' intentions, abilities, and commitment to the shared goals and outcomes.

  3. Does this person bring anything of value to contribute? Recognizing and valuing each individual's unique contributions is essential for a healthy collaboration. When everyone feels their ideas and perspectives are respected and appreciated, it fosters a culture of inclusivity and diverse thinking.

By considering these fundamental questions, we can gain profound insights into the health

and dynamics of collaboration. Evaluating the presence or absence of psychological safety,

trust, and the unique value that each person brings to the table allows us to gauge the

depth and potential of a collaborative partnership. Moreover, Adam Kahane's insightful

words remind us that collaboration is not merely about merging existing egos, but rather

about generating ideas that never existed until everyone entered the room. This notion

brought me to the thought that collaboration operates on different levels, ranging from

surface-level cooperation to deep engagement that leads to the creation of novel and

transformative ideas. Here’s another way we can evaluate our collaborative partnerships.

Level 1 Collaboration: Transactional Cooperation. This level represents basic cooperation

where individuals work next to each other, fulfilling their shared tasks. However, it lacks the

necessary elements of trust and psychological safety for open idea sharing and deep


Level 2 Collaboration: Mutual Participation. This level signifies active engagement and

participation, where individuals feel a greater sense of safety to contribute their ideas and

perspectives. There is a growing sense of trust within the collaborative space, signaling a

shift from transactional cooperation to a more inclusive and participatory approach.

Level 3 Collaboration: Collective Intelligence. This level captures the essence of deep

collaboration, where trust, openness, and mutual respect are at their highest. Participants

not only contribute their ideas but also leverage the collective intelligence of the group to

co-create innovative solutions. It is in this realm that the true power of collaboration

emerges, unlocking the full potential of the group's genius.

By understanding and recognizing these different elements and levels of collaboration, we

can assess and cultivate environments that foster psychological safety, trust, and

innovation. As educators and professionals, it is vital for us to strive toward creating

collaborative spaces that promote the growth and success of all stakeholders in the

education community.

THE OLIVES (A Surprising Element): Let’s explore a powerful example of the highest level

of collaboration; a level 3 collaborative partnership that broke boundaries to find collective

intelligence. The collaboration between The Walt Disney Company and Marvel Studios is

one great example. This extraordinary coming together of two seemingly disparate worlds.

On one hand, you had Disney, an entertainment giant known for enchanting princesses,

magical castles, and heartwarming tales of imagination. On the other hand, you had Marvel,

a powerhouse in the realm of superheroes, origin stories filled with tragedy, intensity, and

larger-than-life battles.

However, it was precisely these differences that made the collaboration between Disney

and Marvel so compelling. As they embarked on this new journey together, they recognized

that their unique strengths could complement each other in unexpected ways. It was in the

blending of Disney's storytelling magic and Marvel's superhero mythology where "collective

intelligence" began to emerge.

Through their collaboration, Disney and Marvel tapped into the power of synergy. The

contrast between princesses and superheroes, castles and destruction, created an exciting

tension that fueled creativity and innovation. Disney's expertise in crafting heartfelt

narratives and creating immersive worlds merged with Marvel's ability to craft complex

characters and thrilling action sequences. Imagine for one second one group didn’t feel safe

enough to share an idea. Or fearful that an idea would be struck down for being too out of

the box. We wouldn’t have new storylines of the Guardians of The Galaxy, or the multiverse

of Doctor Strange. Or my favorite, Thor: Ragnarok.

This convergence of two distinct creative forces allowed them to beat their individual

limitations and explore uncharted territories. As they bridged the gap between princesses

and superheroes, they discovered a shared vision that extended beyond their respective

realms. It was the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that truly exemplified the

power of their collaboration.

Now envision the extraordinary potential of such collaboration within our schools and

classrooms. Collaboration, unfortunately, is often hindered in the educational context due to

concerns of personal vulnerability and the fear that our ideas might be appropriated by

others. We grapple with questions of psychological safety, trust, and the value each

individual brings to the collaborative process.

In the world of education, the stakes are high. We want our classrooms to be psychologically

safe spaces where educators can freely express their ideas, take risks, and experiment with

innovative teaching approaches. We yearn for a collaborative environment where trust is

nurtured, and each participant's unique contributions are valued and respected.

Just as Disney and Marvel overcame their stark differences—the enchanting world of

princesses and castles colliding with the realm of action-packed superhero

adventures—education, too, can witness the transformative power of collaboration. By

addressing the three fundamental elements of healthy collaboration, we can break through

the barriers that inhibit us and unlock the true potential of collective intelligence.

Psychological safety forms the bedrock of fruitful collaboration. In safe spaces, educators

feel secure to share their ideas, ask questions, and engage in open dialogue without the fear

of judgment or negative repercussions. Trust becomes the currency that underpins

collaborative relationships, fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect and support.

Moreover, recognizing and appreciating the value each individual brings to the table fuels

the collaborative process. When we acknowledge that everyone has something worthy to

contribute, we invite diverse perspectives, knowledge, and experiences into the collaborative

space. It is through this amalgamation of talents and ideas that the true magic of

collaboration emerges.

In our classrooms and schools, let us dare to imagine a transformative landscape of

education. Picture a place where educators find solace in psychological safety, where

intentions are trusted, and where the power of collective intelligence propels us forward.

Yet, to realize this vision, we must confront the uncomfortable truths that hinder

collaboration. We must question our fear of vulnerability, grapple with the concern of

uncredited ideas, and overcome the uncertainty that clouds trust. By fearlessly addressing

these barriers, we pave the way for authentic collaboration to flourish. Together, we can

dismantle the barriers that impede our progress and create a future where collaboration is

not just an aspiration, but a transformative force that shapes collaborative experiences in



About the Author

I have a deep passion for education. With certifications in General Education, Special Education, and School Administration, I use my experience and knowledge to leave people, systems, and places in better shape than when I found them. I hold additional certifications as a Gallup CliftonStrengths coach, Effective Literacy coach, and am nationally certified in Facilitative Leadership through NYU. I focus on instructional coaching, leadership coaching, evaluations, strategic alignment and improvement, and special education. After 22 years in education, I recently became the CEO and Founder of Karaton Consulting ( and am dedicated to improving education at all levels.


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