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Cooperation and Collaboration

In the world of innovation, there's a growing emphasis on how we team with others to explore new ideas. Today, I want to focus on the concept of cooperation as opposed to collaboration, reflecting on grass-roots initiative in West Michigan.


A decade ago, leading manufacturers in our region joined forces to establish what they called the Innovation Cooperative. The purpose of the cooperative was to develop an innovation ecosystem in West Michigan to foster the rapid commercialization of innovation. The group explored and reviewed new technologies, trends, and best practices that were to the mutual benefit to the Co-op members.


So, what's in a name? The cooperative was based on principles found in traditional agricultural co-ops - where neighbors lent hands, ensuring heavy lifts became lighter, quality soared, and investments were less burdensome.  Here's where we draw the line between collaboration and cooperation. In collaboration, there's a commonly agreed-upon goal. Imagine everyone needing to be more than 90% on board with the destination. Cooperation, on the other hand, is more about walking the same road together without the need for a unanimous end goal—agreement might only be 50%. Being explicit in this difference opens up many new opportunities.


In the spirit of open innovation, the co-op focused on pre-innovation activities occurring prior to any specific product or strategy definition. The group also collectively engaged with other parts of the innovation ecosystem including venture funding and the university research community to develop and test new engagement methods.


Several factors contributed to the cooperative's success:

  • The members weren't direct competitors.

  • Similar footprint of how and where they operated.

  • Geographic proximity to enable face-to-face interactions.

  • Shared interests and readiness to work together.

But the real 'secret sauce'? Trust and a hint of self-interest (…being selfish). Members were encouraged to be open and, paradoxically, to bring their own needs and wants to the table.


With time, the Innovation Cooperative morphed into something more collaborative (and structured) - a well-funded technology accelerator. The initial cooperative spirit didn't vanish; it actually inspired a collection of new research consortia and innovative partnerships that continue today.


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