Cooperation, collaboration and how NEC contracts provide a framework for both

March 14, 2024
Unlock true collaboration on NEC projects! Learn how contracts & practical steps can foster a win-win environment.

Why do we talk about collaboration when discussing NEC contracts when the parties are only expected to act in ‘a spirit of mutual trust and co-operation?

This blog explores the differences between collaboration and cooperation and how NEC contracts are written to compel the latter and facilitate the former. Also, given that collaboration is a more beneficial state than co-operation, we discuss what practical steps could be taken to achieve collaboration.

Defining cooperation and collaboration

Anyone can cooperate. Obeying the speed limit, putting the rubbish out, signing a contract − these actions are evidence of cooperation. They involve assisting someone or complying with their requests. Collaboration is different as it requires a positive choice to be made. Working jointly on an activity or project is collaborative working. It requires shared ownership and a shared concept of a common problem. Communication is also required along, potentially, with negotiation and compromise. The distinction between co-operation and collaboration could perhaps be defined as the difference in how we participate − it is either active or passive.

People can cooperate by taking no action at all, while it would be hard to say the same about collaboration. To collaborate we must communicate, and possibly negotiate and compromise, while taking positive actions. A good way of looking at the distinction is in relation to cooperative labour, where the tasks required are just divided up by the resource available. Anyone can see that this may not be the most efficient way of undertaking the work. Collaboration would lead to the most efficient use of those resources, benefitting all involved. There is an academic model which clearly outlines why moving from cooperation to collaboration is useful and effective. The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument plots assertiveness with cooperativeness to identify five distinct conflict-handling modes: competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising and collaborating. We have all worked on projects where parties act in the first four of those conflict-handling modes, and we all remember fondly projects where assertiveness combined with cooperation has resulted in collaborative action.

How NEC contracts facilitate collaboration

The NEC suite of contracts outline a framework in which to cooperate. It even makes that cooperation a contractual obligation in the form of clause 10.2 of the Engineering and Construction Contract (ECC): ‘The Parties, the Project Manager and the Supervisor act in a spirit of mutual trust and co-operation.’ Examples of where NEC contracts provide processes to impose cooperation and go further to facilitate collaboration include the following. NEC’s early warnings and risk reduction meetings involve communicating potential issues, making and considering proposals, seeking solutions advantageous to all those who will be affected and agreeing actions to be taken. This is clearly a collaborative approach to problem solving and is integral to the NEC suite of contracts.

The NEC programme submission, acceptance and updating process involves communicating and articulating the plan, allowing a considered response and providing for regular updates to keep everyone informed. An accepted plan of how the project is going to get from start to finish promotes shared ownership and a shared concept of common objectives. Notifications, responses and quotations relating to NEC compensation events all have sanctions described in the contract to improve the momentum of decision making and not allow issues to stagnate. Commitments, either contractual or otherwise, to raise notices and respond in a timely fashion are clearly evidence of fostering a collaborative environment, not just one of cooperation. Do not forget that the timescales are the maximum and there is no imperative to use up all of the time. Real collaboration would recognise when those timescales must be bettered for the common good, and the NEC concept of Project Manager’s assumptions can assist in streamlining that process even further. Either through NEC target-cost options with shared savings, or through secondary options such as X6 bonus for early completion and X12 multiparty collaboration, the project team can be further incentivised to work collaboratively. Cost and time savings now become a shared benefit and a common goal, both critical elements to collaborative working.

Practical steps to achieve collaboration

As we can see above, NEC contracts are embedded with processes that engender at least cooperation. However they cannot force the positive actions and assertiveness that result in collaboration. So what real and practical steps can be taken to move from the four sub-optimal modes of conflict-handling described in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument to the win/win one of collaboration? Building on NEC’s framework for collaborative working as described above, there are six simple and practical guidelines which can be followed by all.

First, adhere stringently to ECC clauses 10.1 & 10.2, it’s critical that parties ‘act as stated in this contract’. Only in that consistent environment can trust, cooperation and ultimately collaboration grow.

Second, utilise ECC clause 15 on early warning as it was intended, not as pre-notification of a compensation event. This is where the contractual relationship can be made and broken. Use early warnings as stated in the contract − which is for anything that could compromise the project − and you will benefit as the contract intended.

Third, you do not need to agree the programme but it does need accepting. In NEC contracts the accepted programme is not called the agreed programme or the contractor’s programme, and it is not a commercial weapon or shield to be used in times of dispute. It is the lifeblood of the project: having a recently accepted programme is the only way either party can really understand how the shared concept of the common problem is going to be dealt with. Fourth, spend the majority of time and effort pre-contract on the NEC scope and site information. If this is brilliantly written and compiled then any number of Z clauses and changes to the equitable nature of the contract timescales will not affect the team’s ability to collaborate. What is required, when and where will be simply described and easy to follow. Fifth, act consistently.

When submitting and responding to quotations, programmes, payment assessments and any other NEC communications, behave in a consistent manner. The clauses of the contract do not change and the principles of responses should not either. In any relationship, inconsistent behaviour will lead to distrust and reduce effective means of communication. Last but not least, do not forget to talk to each other. It is people who manage NEC projects, not contracts or computer systems, the latter simply serve to make people more efficient and effective. Nothing improves on the co-location of project teams and joint reviews of programmes, quotations, proposed instructions and any event where ‘two heads are better than one’. 


It is difficult to answer succinctly what the difference is between cooperation and collaboration, but we all know it when we see it. NEC contracts have been drafted to provide a cooperative platform and, as outlined above, we can build on that with good practice to create a collaborative environment ‘in a spirit of mutual trust and co-operation’. 

The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument − collaboration is a combination of cooperation and assertiveness (courtesy CPP,

How Gather supports consistent, structured reporting on site...

While NEC contracts provide a framework for collaboration, achieving it in practice requires consistent effort. Gather can help by ensuring consistent, structured reporting on site, delivering a trusted and transparent source of truth to build a foundation for collaboration on all projects, not just NEC contracts. With Gather, everyone has access to the latest information, fostering a collaborative environment where decisions can be made quickly and efficiently.

Learn more about how Gather can transform your project communication

Cooperation, collaboration and how NEC contracts provide a framework for both

Nick Woodrow

Operations Director

A positive and outcome focused chartered civil engineer with over 20 years spent in a broad range of businesses successfully delivering complex projects & leading teams at C-level.

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