Blog Post

Collaboration Tip #1: What Kinds of Problems Need Collaboration?

March 9, 2016

You and your boss don’t really collaborate. Neither do you and your employee, or you and your supplier.

You might work collaboratively, but ultimately one of you has power and authority over the other. Real, substantive collaboration—getting people to cooperate without power and authority—takes a lot of work, and so you only want to collaborate on challenges that need it.

Most problems don’t require substantive collaboration. Ninety percent of daily problems can be solved individually or through power-and-authority relationships. So what kinds of problems need substantive collaboration? Adaptive problems.

Kind of Problem

Problem Definition



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Locus of Work






Changing a light bulb.

Problem: Burned out bulb

Solution: Replace bulb

Locus of work: Someone with the authority to purchase/ replace a bulb

Technical and Adaptive


Requires learning

Authority and stakeholders

Treating chronic disease.

Problem: Disease state

Solution: Medical interventions (medicine, procedures, surgeries) & changes in patient mindsets, beliefs, and behaviors

Locus of work: Medical personnel, patients, families, communities


Requires learning

Requires learning



Problem: Multiple causes (poverty, unemployment, mental health)

Solutions: Multiple lacking consensus

Locus of work: Individuals and whole communities 

Adaptive problems are the tough, complex challenges we like to tackle. Adaptive problems have multiple possible causes and therefore multiple possible solutions, and solving them involves enrolling multiple stakeholders without the ease and benefit of pure power-and-authority relationships.

This is a guest post by Richard J. Crespin, who is the CEO of CollaborateUp, specializing in accelerating collaboration among organizations looking to tackle our world's biggest challenges. To tackle a big problem of your own, visit

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