Cooperation Within a Community of Practice

The other day, we looked at the light and dark sides of competitive play. Today, we do the same for cooperative play. Because it’s “cooperative” in nature, it’s hard to believe that there’s a dark side to it. But as you will see, not only does it have that dark side, but the majority of us have probably experienced it at least once in our youth.

In the previous post, I said that we have become a competitive society, obsessed with rankings and metrics and being the best. Which is true. But at the same time we’re being driven to be the top dog, we’re being compelled to be a more cooperative society. Just look at the obsession with team projects in classrooms and skills competition-based reality shows. While it’s fueled by the understanding that work beyond the classroom is often completed by teams, I think we’re slowly understanding that teams whose members represent different strengths (the craft specialization mindset found in earlier cultures and cultures considered to be more “primitive”) are capable of achieving more and innovating more than a single individual or level teams. Sadly, we haven’t yet wrapped our education system’s mind around the fact that craft specialization is the opposite of docile clones. Such is the way of progress…

In a team where cooperation is practiced, the skill level averages out. So, it benefits the person building the team to seek out those who are as good or better than they are at a skill, something that becomes easier in a culture where craft specialization is practiced. In a society where the education system turns out young people at a theoretically uniform knowledge level, where a false sense of self-esteem has been developed by the participation ribbon, problems arise. Those who think they have the skills necessary to contribute to the team but don’t (or worse, have the skills but think they don’t) will hide behind the rest of the team so their weakness won’t be found out, effectively leaving their share of the workload to their teammates. We see this all the time in class projects, the child unable to contribute because of weaker or nonexistent skills and not wanting to be called out on it. But it becomes clear when other children in the class start doing whatever they can to not be on a team with that child.

When that weak link is the team leader, the results can be disastrous depending on how willing the team is to cover up for the leader. A leader lacking in the skills they need to have but don’t  can lead to a project with no direction or where they’ve spent the entire time taking out their low self-esteem on the team, demoralizing the group until no work is possible.

Okay, so…that’s the dark side. A lack of knowledge, coupled with low self-esteem or Impostor Syndrome. It’s not pretty…or productive.

On the light side, strong teams are made up of people with a range of talents and skill levels (because a team made up of a uniform group of people is really a waste of manpower when you think about it). Someone looking to put together a team for a project can look at what s/he brings to the project, what the skill gaps are, and then find people who fill in those gaps. People with overlapping skill sets can be balanced by being at different levels. A well-constructed team has the benefit of creating opportunities for peer teaching, for those who are knowledgeable in one field to educate their teammates on skills and team-relevant issues related to their field, meaning that once a team parts ways, each member who interacted with other members of the team comes away with a greater understanding of how their work fits in with other disciplines, allowing them to build stronger teams in the future because they know more about what to look for.

I mentioned in the other post that I enjoy watching skill-based competition reality shows because they often do a good job of showing off the strengths and weaknesses of competition. I also enjoy watching team dynamics and performance in these shows. This past spring, I had a blast watching Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge, because the fabricators came from such different backgrounds and experiences and were able to share their knowledge with each other, both in teams and when working separately. There wasn’t a whole lot of voiced concern that someone was training another competitor to beat them; they were simply helping a fellow fabricator out, pulling somebody up to make sure they all turned out the best puppets they could.

Another great show for watching this type of cooperative competition, although it really doesn’t fit the mold of the competition-based reality show, is Heroes of Cosplay (which I think just wrapped up its summer season). I’ll get more into this next time, but the show does a really good job of showing how a group of high-level and up-and-coming cosplayers prepare for the con season. Individual cosplayers may work on their own or with another individual cosplayer, and they’ll bounce ideas off each other or help each other troubleshoot. Teams may work individually or together on their costumes (and skits, depending on the con they’re preparing for). This group of costume designers and fabricators (many of whom are either professional or looking to become professional) aren’t afraid to teach other tips and tricks, and many of them aren’t afraid to experiment and then share the results of their experiments with the other cosplayers. In fact, it’s not unusual for one of these experiments to become common use, and everyone knows where the new technique came from. They want the right designer to get credit.

At its best, cooperative play is a learning opportunity for everyone involved. At its worse, it’s a nightmare for those with low self-esteem, Impostor Syndrome, and anyone who has to work with the afflicted people.

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One thought on “Cooperation Within a Community of Practice

  1. Pingback: Mentoring Within a Craft | Genius in Transition

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