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Why I Love Legos™

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pamela Mischen
November 20, 2015

I spend a lot of my time working within networks. Some of these are interorganizational networks, some interdepartmental and others interpersonal. What drives each of these networks is the belief that working together will help solve a problem that cannot be solved by working alone.

Many of these networks would not call themselves “networks.” However, they are likely to use the same term to describe what they are doing: collaboration. I don’t take issue with the lack of the use of the term “network.” It makes no difference to me if these groupings call themselves coalitions, steering committees or task forces. What I have become increasingly annoyed by is the overuse of the term collaboration.

In 2007, Keast, Brown and Mandell distinguished among the three Cs of cooperation, coordination and collaboration by arguing that they fall along a horizontal integration continuum between fully fragmented systems and fully connected systems. Cooperation represents limited connections and low intensity interactions. Coordination signifies a moderate number of connections and moderate intensity interactions. Collaboration represents a high number of connections and high intensity interactions.

I agree with the authors that the three Cs are not synonymous and they represent differing levels, or quantities, of interactions. However, I believe there is a qualitative difference between cooperation and coordination on one hand and collaboration on the other.

And this is why I love Legos ™. They help me explain what this difference is.

Imagine you have a bunch of Legos™ assembled into neat little blocks. To better see the distinction I’m going to make, let there be six blocks, each comprised of Legos™ of different sizes but of the same color. Now, let’s try to build a house with these blocks. With a little effort we could line them all up and make a simple single-level house (House A).

House A

With a little more effort, we can stack them up into a more elaborate two-level house (House B). Both are OK houses and they are better than a whole bunch of blocks strewn about on the floor but they’re pretty clunky.

House B

What if, instead of trying to build a house with the preassembled blocks, we torn those blocks apart and reformed them into a house? Then we’d get House C. Much nicer!

House C

Let’s go back to the Keast et al. What the authors found was that cooperation was described as not “requir[ing] a lot of effort or loss of autonomy.” Likewise, coordination was described as a more intensive level of working together but still without the loss of autonomy. Collaboration, however, was described as a form of integration “that required much closer relationships, connections and resources and even a blurring of the boundaries between agencies.”

When we cooperate or coordinate, we move the blocks around. Sometimes we put more effort into that arrangement, but we don’t alter the blocks themselves. When we collaborate, we blur the lines and put the goal of the network—“high-quality housing”—above our individual organizational goals. To be sure, blurring these lines and building the better house takes more connections and interactions that are more intensive. But it also fundamentally alters the way we think of our organizations and our relationships between them. With cooperation/coordination we are adapting our system of organizations; with collaboration we are transforming it.

You may argue that the house in picture C really isn’t that much better than the house in picture A or B, at least not enough to warrant the significant changes made to the initial building blocks. I could certainly be persuaded of this. Sometimes collaboration isn’t worth the effort or the consequences. In those cases, cooperation or coordination is the better option.

Sometimes cooperation and coordination are not sufficient. What if our goal was not to build a house but to build a car?  We could arrange the blocks in every possible combination and we will not get an arrangement that looks like a car. Sometimes transformation is necessary.

What we learned while building the models:

1) It takes a lot of work to build a block/organization. You need to find the right pieces and figure out how they fit together.

2) It really didn’t take much work to build our cooperative house.

3) It took a bit more work to build our coordinated house. We had to try several configurations to get one that looked like it would not blow over in a gust of wind.

4) It took even more effort to build the collaborative house. We had to try even more configurations. Significant planning and discussion was involved.

5) We had pieces left over making it a more efficient house than either the cooperative or the coordinated houses.

6) It was much sturdier than either the cooperative or the coordinated houses because it was built to be a house.

[I would like to thank Chandler Mischen Gazzo and Samantha Lauth for their assistance in retrieving the Legos™ from the attic and building the models.]


Author: Pamela A. Mischen is an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration and a member of the Center for Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems (CoCo) at Binghamton University. She can be reached at [email protected]

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2 Responses to Why I Love Legos™

  1. Rob Kenter Reply

    November 23, 2015 at 7:22 am

    Excellent article, although collaboration is difficult to define I agree it is easier to understand when though of along this continuum.

  2. ISAAC Reply

    November 20, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Concept to prefer collaboration over cooperation/coordination is great.

    Lego example six blocks; same color?

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