Tools of Cooperation Theory

The theory that pinpoints which change management tools to use, and when, to reach consensus.

Handshake illustration


There are a variety of tools, ranging from motivational speeches to commands that an individual could use to elicit cooperative behavior in an organization, department, or business. These are called the Tools of Cooperation. 

This theory helps leaders choose the right tools to drive change by assessing stakeholders’ agreement on what the organization’s goals should be and how it can achieve them. The graphic below depicts these two variables. The vertical axis measures the extent to which the people involved agree on the goals. In other words, what do they want?

The second dimension is plotted on the horizontal axis. It measures the extent to which the people involved agree on cause and effect—which actions will lead to the desired result. In other words, how will we achieve our goals? 

Leaders seeking a specific change will find that figuring out their constituents’ placement on this diagram is time well spent. Getting the diagnosis right has profound implications for how to roll out any proposed change.

Graphic titled The Tools of Cooperation Diagram

Unique Insight

Most Tools of Cooperation don’t work most of the time because the level of agreement isn’t assessed. As a result, leaders often fail when trying to manage change, as the tools they use waste credibility, energy, and resources.


How can organizational leaders choose the right tools to drive change? It all depends on assessing stakeholders’ agreement on the organization’s goals and how it can achieve them. Check out our helpful video.

Case Studies

Working mothers are plagued by depression, anxiety, and burnout at higher rates than both working fathers and coworkers without children. Mental health issues are the leading cause of maternal mortality, which the CDC recently identified as preventable in 84% of cases. Health issues are compounded by economic distress, such as the cost of childcare, which has risen 214% since 1990, while average family income has only risen 143%.

And there’s an economic downside: Missed days from work and more utilization of health care services due to mental distress cost the economy $47.6B in 2020. Businesses in the United States incur more than $1 trillion in costs annually due to turnover, and many of these workers want family-related perks. On average, if caregiving support prevented five employees from quitting, it would save a company $200,000.

Of critical importance is the fact that this problem isn’t new. Why, as a nation, have we failed to make meaningful progress on supporting working mothers’ health in recent decades?

According to research from Ann Somers Hogg, it’s because you can’t solve a problem without getting consensus on the root cause as well as the goal. Consensus is severely lacking on what causes poor maternal health after the first year postpartum and what the ultimate goal of addressing it should be. 

Outside of a brief, unpaid maternity leave, federal policy puts the onus of navigating this period of time solely on the individual. For instance, if a mother feels too stressed at work, it’s the mother’s responsibility to find the solution.

Nationally, there is also a lack of clarity on the goal of improving maternal health. Ultimately, do we want less stress on the health care system (e.g., cost), or do we want a more productive workforce (e.g., low turnover)? Or both? Or something else entirely?

Without consensus, we can’t answer critical questions around how to achieve it. For instance, should working mothers work less, or should workplace demands decrease? Should better access to childcare become a priority? With no societal agreement on these factors, the pressure rests on the individual (i.e., the working mom) to solve a national problem. This is a losing strategy.

Due to a lack of agreement on both the root causes and the goals, according to the Tools of Cooperation Theory, fewer constituents means quicker consensus. Therefore, a promising first step could be forward-thinking employers instituting policies and workplace benefits that promote maternal health.

These can—and should—come in a variety of forms, For example, a near-term effort like a shortened workweek can benefit working mothers, their employers, and therefore society through improved health and economics.

These insights are part of Ann Somers Hogg’s report, “If health is wealth, America’s working mothers are living in extreme poverty: A framework for proper diagnosis and effective treatment.” Learn more here.

How to get cooperation and agreement to move an institution forward is one of the trickiest parts of a higher ed leader’s job. Yet progress must be a priority as expensive higher education models collide with the emergence of low-cost, technology-enabled learning solutions. 

Add to this environment a number of stressors—from shrinking numbers of high school graduates, to turbulent debates over what schools can and can’t teach and what faculty can and can’t say—and it’s imperative to proactively chart strategic paths forward. 

However, the average tenure of a college president has consistently and steadily declined over the last twenty years. It’s no longer unusual to see presidential tenures end after three to five years.

Against this backdrop, and to successfully chart a course forward, Michael B. Horn’s research reveals that leaders must quickly understand the level of agreement inside their college or university and then use the right tools to forge ahead. Getting the diagnosis right has profound implications for how to roll out any proposed change.

Tools of Cooperation Use Cases

Applying  the Tools of Cooperation to higher education, if employees:

Disagree on both goals and how to achieve them: Use Power Tools, such as threats, role definition, control systems, and coercion. But these tools are often unavailable due to the dominance of  shared governance, consensus-driven decision-making, and tenure. 

Agree on goals but disagree on how to achieve them: Use Leadership Tools, such as vision, charisma, salesmanship, and role modeling. Lofty statements and visions are effective here because members of the community are in agreement about what they want. As long as the leader doesn’t overly focus on the “how” upfront—since there may be plenty of disagreement or lack of firm conviction—and just lays out the plan focusing on ultimate  goals, individuals will rally to the cause and overlook where they might disagree on specific tactics or processes. 

Agree on both goals and how to achieve them: Use Culture Tools, such as ritual, folklore, and democracy. Individuals will cooperate almost automatically to continue in the same direction because they have a deep consensus on priorities and what actions they need to take to achieve these priorities. This is the essence of a strong culture.

Disagree on goals but agree on how to achieve them: Use Management Tools, such as measurement systems, standard operating procedures, and training. In these cases, a college leader can introduce a new program or set of procedures that faculty and other administrators agree will help the college, even if they differ markedly around the “why” behind these or what they hope to get out of continuing to do research and teach at the school.

These insights are part of Michael B. Horn’s report, “How leaders can successfully manage change in colleges and universities.” Learn more here.

Illustration of a paper airplane

Microsoft’s memo

Bill Gates used leadership tools in his 1995 Internet Tidal Wave memo to help Microsoft’s employees see that maintaining the company’s dominance in the software industry (what they wanted) required an aggressive acknowledgment that the nascent World Wide Web would become an integral part of computing rather than a sideshow to the then-dominant desktop applications. This acknowledgment ran counter to most employees’ deeply held beliefs. The fierce response of the company’s Internet Explorer team crippled Netscape and won Microsoft  more than a 90% share of the browser market.

Illustration of a group of people

Superintendent superpower

When the elementary schools of inner-city Chattanooga, Tennessee were failing, then-Superintendent Jesse Register turned to power tools and replaced all but one of the schools’ principals. He made all the teachers in the school reapply for their jobs and pass a test. And although he couldn’t fire the 100 teachers who didn’t make the cut, he managed to shift them out of the inner-city schools into the suburban Chattanooga schools where the infrastructure offered them more support. The schools turned around dramatically.

Helpful Tools

Infographic: When to use the Tools of Cooperation

What are the four different types of Tools of Cooperation specifically, and in what circumstances are each most effective? Click the image to download and check out our resource library for additional content.

Getting the diagnosis right has profound implications for how to roll out any proposed change.

  • Disagree on both goals and how to achieve them?
    Use Power Tools: The only tools that will elicit cooperation toward a new course.
  • Agree on goals but disagree on how to achieve them?
    Use Leadership Tools: These are focused on results/goals, as opposed to process/plan.
  • Disagree on goals but agree on how to achieve them?
    Use Management Tools: These are coordinative and process-oriented in nature.
  • Agree on both goals and how to achieve them?
    Use Culture Tools: People instinctively prioritize similar options. Yet, these only preserve the status quo and don’t cause change.

At the Clayton Christensen Institute, we’re using Tools of Cooperation Theory to:

childcare cliff

Help fund US childcare programs

While discussion around the cause-and-effect relationship of funding childcare is ongoing, there is a lack of focus around the key goals of funding it. As a result, the government is stuck. When progress is stymied due to a perceived lack of consensus on outcomes, the Tools of Cooperation theory can be effective in moving bipartisan discussions toward resolutions.

United Nations building

Support the United Nations’ climate initiatives

Despite hosting 27 UN Climate Change Conferences over the past three decades, United Nations chief, Antonio Guterres remarked that the world is on a “highway to climate hell.” It’s no surprise that he called for a “no nonsense” summit in 2023. However, the UN wields little power over member nations because it receives most of its funding from its members, with the US as the largest donor. It’s difficult to demand a “no nonsense” summit from the entities funding your existence as an organization. By assessing the Tools of Cooperation, it’s clear that Guterres and the UN should employ leadership tools. Few other tools can elicit the kind of transformative change needed to solve the global environmental challenges we face.

School leaders sitting around a table

Understand how K-12 schools can pivot during crises

Schools that were prepared for COVID harnessed what the Tools of Cooperation theory describes as Leadership Tools. Yet, viewing insight through the theory surfaces an important caution for school leaders who want to apply this takeaway: Leadership tools only work when the people in the organization have shared goals and purpose. When people don’t buy into a shared vision, leadership tools are typically met with indifference or disdain and don’t motivate stakeholder behavior. Recent research reveals that schools spent years before the pandemic developing their shared visions of 21st century success. That groundwork is an essential precursor to pivoting successfully in a time of crisis.

Get more research at your fingertips

Check out our latest Tools of Cooperation resources: