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Blindfolded Employees: Cooperation or Collaboration?

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Blind monks examining an elephant

This is a well-known parable worth repeating. Once upon a time, in the far eastern capital of a far eastern nation, the CEO of a large corporation, Mr. King, had an elephant brought into the vast marble and glass lobby. He invited nine blindfolded employees to come down from their offices and cubicles and identify the beast. They soon arrived, each individual from a different part of the company, each with their very own business card.

When the blindfolded employees had each felt only a part of the elephant, the CEO went to each of them individually and said, ‘Well, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of a thing is an elephant?”

Most of you know the ending. The blindfolded workers told Mr. King that the elephant is like one of the following:

  • Pot (forehead)
  • Basket (ear)
  • Plowshare (tusk)
  • Plow (trunk)
  • Granary (body)
  • Pillar (foot)
  • Mortar (back)
  • Pestle (tail)
  • Brush (tip of the tail)

Replace the elephant with the corporation and the blindfolded employees with people working in the Human Resources, Information Technology, Organization Development, Knowledge Management, Marketing, Communications, and Training & Development departments. Yes, they all cooperatebut do they collaborate?

It is not a simple distinction. Imagine all of these departments in separate buildings. They sometimes call or usually email one another to find out something. Folks from a few of the groups even occasionally get together for a meeting.

Yes, they cooperate. Now imagine that the departments were physically all merged into a big department called “The Whole Enchilada” department. People’s desks from all these groups and departments were all mixed and matched. Meetings posted questions as topics. Different organizations were invited to send someone who could help with the answer. Ad hoc networks were created to collaborate around the solutions. Can you see the difference?

When we cooperate, we work together with the problem at the periphery and our corporate identities at the center. When we collaborate, we work together with the problem at the center and our corporate identities at the periphery. Who solves the problem is less important than that the solution is found by the group.

When was the last time you reached across the departmental lines to really collaborate? When was the last time you were not blinded by your own group or departmental focus, and realized the answer was… an elephant?

Source: “Blind men and an elephant,” Wikipedia
Source: “What Does the Collaboration ‘Field’ Look Like?,” Groupaya, 08/16/12
Source: “The collaboration field needs to cooperate,” Harold Jarche: Life in Perpetual Beta, 08/20/12
Image by Hanabusa Itchō.