In complexity, cooperation trumps collaboration. Collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. Cooperation is also a driver of creativity as it enables more and varied connections with people and with ideas. Cooperation is a fundamental behaviour for effectively working in networks, and it’s in networks where most of us will be working.

People in networks cannot be told what to do, only influenced through other nodes (people) due to their reputation. If people don’t like you, they won’t connect. In a hierarchy you only have to please your boss. In a network you have to be seen as having some value, though not the same value, by many others.

Coordination is the lowest level of working together. It ensures that the right person is doing the right work at the right time. It works in low levels of complexity. Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, though they are complementary. Teams, groups, and markets collaborate. Social networks and communities of practice usually cooperate. Working cooperatively requires a different mindset than merely collaborating on a defined project. It requires curiosity.

While all levels of complexity exist in our world, more and more of our work deals with real complex problems — in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect — whether they be social, technological, or economic. Complex environments and problems are best addressed when we organize as networks, work to continuously develop emergent practices, and cooperate to advance our aspirations.

But extreme complexity is pretty close to chaos and it seems that more of the situations we are dealing with — violent political action, climate change — are rather chaotic. Complexity and chaos require us to structure for curiosity and resolve. We have to build even more flexible organizational structures. Networked, democratic environments that continuously develop emergent practices through system-wide cooperation are not enough. With frequent chaotic events to deal with we also have to organize in temporary, negotiated hierarchies that can quickly form and re-form in order to test novel practices. The ability to do this requires system-wide creativity.

I have said before that humans have the ability to deal with some very complex things, yet too often our cultural and organizational barriers block us from using these innate abilities. With increasing chaos, creativity is becoming even more important.

“The essence of genius is that it’s a misfit quality. Misfits don’t fit well into institutionalized assembly lines.” —Prof. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

complexity chaos