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Shared Mental Models: The vital but invisible ingredient for team success

Insight

20 March 2017

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When I heard of Barcelona’s recent win over Paris SG in the Champions League coming from 4-0 down and making history, I thought about a question we often ask corporate teams: what do truly high performing teams have in common?

One of the best-kept secrets is a shared mental model. Sadly, few of the managers I meet in the course of my consulting or leadership development activities have heard of them. Yet the research is full of evidence about how important a good, shared mental model is for effective team performance.

So what is a shared mental model, you ask? It’s the:

knowledge structure(s) held by each member of a team that enables them to form accurate explanations and expectations…and in turn, to coordinate their actions and adapt their behaviour to demands of the task and other team members.”1

Picture the Barcelona team heading into the second leg 4-0 down. Hopefully, they made best use of the previous week to chat, but they were now heading for the second game, where they would have to make rapid decisions and act in the moment. ‘No plan survives first contact’ is a phrase we heard at our Annual Conference recently. This means teams have to act quickly and decisively, in response to changing conditions, without necessarily being able to halt proceedings to discuss the best plan of action. To be effective in this fast-paced environment, teams need to instinctively know what to do and how to work together to achieve success. To do this, they need a good shared mental model.

 

Shared mental models are not only essential for effective sports teams, where team members need to act instantly but in many other environments too. Picture the surgical environment. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being conscious in theatre, you’ll know that even relatively simple surgical procedures require a whole host of specialists to work together effectively. When time is critical, it’s essential that each team member has an effective shared mental model, which includes the following elements:

  • The problem/task: Do we have a shared understanding of the problem and of what needs to be done here?

  • The team: Do we have a clear understanding of our own roles in this, of each other’s strengths and experience relevant to the task?

  • The strategy: Do we have a clear, shared understanding of the most effective way to approach this? The tools, techniques, and resources we should be deploying?

Although you might not equate your workplace to the football field or surgical theatre, shared mental models are just as important to you - especially if not all your team members are in the same location, or members find themselves in front of a customer having to make decisions without being able to consult the others.

 

So how can your team go about developing a shared mental model? There are a number of options, some of which are commonplace in the military and sport. They include:

  • After action reviews – review performance on a particular project or task; what went well, what didn’t, what surprised us, what would we do differently in future?

  • Team training – training as a team can be very effective, particularly employing activities like simulations, where the team gets to practice working through a problem together, and has the opportunity to reflect on the impact of their decisions, actions, and so on.2

  • Team planning – although a team leader may often, for expedience, take care of the planning, doing this as a team helps to develop the team’s shared understanding of the task itself.

  • Away-days – whilst some people may cringe at the thought of a ‘team away-day’, they serve a very useful purpose in helping develop the team’s mental model. The time spent together allows us to learn more about each other’s strengths, weaknesses, preferences, past experiences, and so on.

 

When was the last time you thought about your team’s shared mental model? It’s worth considering it; when work environments are complex and fast-paced even small breakdowns in teamwork can result in mishaps that are hard to recover from.

 

References

1Cannon-Bowers, J. A., Salas, E., & Converse, S. A. (1993). Shared mental models in expert team decision making. In N. J. Castellan, Jr. (Ed.), Current issues in individual and group decision making (pp. 221-246). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

2Van den Bossche, P., Gijselaers, W., Segers, M., Woltjer, G., & Kirschner, P. A. (2011). Team learning: Building shared mental models. Instructional Science, 39, 283-301.

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