Cooperation is Never Perfect

I love it when a scientist comes along and proves something that, on an intuitive level, I just knew had to be true. That’s what just happened for me while watching Martin Nowark talk about his work on cooperation.

Just as I suspected: cooperation isn’t all fluffy white bunnies.

Nowark uses game theory to analyze the dynamics of cooperation, and do you know what he learned? He learned that there’s no such thing as a stable state of cooperation. When he ran his computer models, the optimal strategy for cooperation continually morphs over time. One approach that works well at the outset ends up losing efficacy over time in response to the behavior of other participants.

My work spans lots of different networks of people and ideas, and through it I’ve run across many different attitudes towards the topic of cooperation. I’ve seen mild bemusement and wild enthusiasm. Often (but not always) those most bemused and least amused by cooperation are those with strong institutional affiliations. Much of my writing is aimed at helping people with strong institutional ties understand the new organizational models now emerging around a more networked, more collaborative world.

This post is less for these folks though, and more for my fellow wild-eyed enthusiasts of cooperation.

To be clear, I am a huge proponent of organizational cooperation, collaboration and engagement. I write about it a lot and believe firmly the world needs more – not less – wild-eyed enthusiasm for cooperation. So what I’m about to say truly does come from a spirit of wanting to strengthen the ground on which cooperation stands.

Nowark’s work is important because it points out the limitations of cooperation. The world is not always about cooperation. Sometimes I’m trying to collaborate with people who are not collaborating back. Some days I don’t feel particularly cooperative. And sometimes, there are competing values such as autonomy, individual expression and liberty that need to be balanced with our desire for collaboration.

Here, once again, is that really great quote that I previously highlighted in my recent post on Nowark. I think it’s important to fully digest the implications of this statement:

“In all my subsequent work on evolution of cooperation, it’s the same story. Cooperation is never here to stay. Cooperation is there for some time. Then the system breaks down and you have to rebuild it.”
-Martin Nowak

Many of us working on the new organizational models have a tendency to confuse the idea of cooperation with its reality. The reality of cooperation is messy and unstable. There is no perfect cooperative state that we somehow bring about with the right set of policies.

Even Homer understands the dynamics of cooperation...sometimes.

Like many things in life, our understanding of cooperation gets better when we view it with the lens of dynamics and even the Taoist notion of Yin and Yang. I’m not going woo-woo on you. I’m going woo-hoo on you! As in woo-hoo, this stuff is cool!

Reality changes all the time. In fact, when you really think about it: change is reality.

Those of us working to embed collaborative practices into organizations and networks of people need to embrace this understanding of change in all we do. We are agents of change – and we now need to embrace change as an agent. Rather than thinking about how to lock in coordination as the organizational norm, we need to think about how to prolong periods of cooperative stability and how to quickly and efficiently rebuilt collaboration once it is inevitably disrupted.

Don’t get me (or Nowark) wrong. While cooperation isn’t black or white, there are things we can consistently do to strengthen its probability of thriving in an organization. There are cultural values that help build cooperation in an organization. The three Nowark discovered through his modeling are: generosity, hopefulness and forgiveness.

  • Generosity helps us overlook inequities that come and go at the micro-level, in order to remain focused on the macro-benefits of cooperation.
  • Hopefulness gives us the faith to start from a position of cooperation.
  • Forgiveness helps us break a spiral of distrust and return quickly to a cycle of cooperation.

These values are simply the ones that emerged from Nowark’s modeling. You may well have additional values that your experience tells you are also critical. For example, I would add trust.

I guess what I’m saying in the end is that we need to hang on to our values while at the same time grounding our practices in the reality – as opposed to our fantasies – of cooperation. The benefits of cooperation are real and they are an essential strength of the new organizational models now emerging. But we must wield our understanding of cooperation in ways that reflect the reality of its underlying nature. We owe it to ourselves – and to the organizations and people we serve – to get this right.


Lots of related ideas at The Vital Edge.


  1. You focus on the right part of the challenge. How do we let cooperation fail gracefully and rebuild new cooperative alignment quickly. I would add the elements of networks.. Outside personality triggers..

    Communication lines
    Common language
    Reputation and idenity awareness
    Shared resources
    Feedback mechanisms.
    Diversity of collaborative types by operations roles…

    • Yeah, I really like Martin Nowak’s frame on this. As a side note, I was just talking with a friend of mine who was at Wharton with me in business school. He took the same negotiations class I did, which back then had a heavy influence on the same kind of game theory. Sounds as though they’ve now moved away from this, and are concentrated more on how the brain works and determining whether or not someone truly wants to collaborate.

      Love your stuff on the elements of successful networks, Marty. Why don’t you leave people a link here, Marty, in case they want more? Also, how do you think these factors contribute to quickly recovering from defections in the process of collaborating?

  2. Maybe you and Bruce Schneier should talk before he publishes HIS book:


%d bloggers like this: