Shared Mental Models: The vital but invisible ingredient for team success
What is a shared mental model?
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 managers I have heard of the term. Yet the research is full of evidence about how important a good, shared mental model is for effective team performance.
A shared mental model is 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”.
Teams can always plan ahead, but when the pressure is on, they must be able to adapt. ‘No plan survives first contact’ is a phrase often used in the military. Essentially, teams must have the ability 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 a 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.
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.
Shared mental models in practice
Shared mental models are a vital ingredient for teams regardless of their environment. Sport is a good example, with individuals having to make instant decisions in the moment about the game they’re playing without being able to consult with others. Alternatively, picture a surgical operating theatre. If you’ve ever had the experience 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 front line, stadium or surgical theatre, shared mental models are just as important to your team – especially if not all your members are in the same location. We all work in a fast-paced world, so reducing the need to consult with other team members can speed up decision making and ultimately make us more efficient.
How can your team develop a shared mental model?
There are a number of ways teams can develop shared mental models, these are just a few suggestions:
- 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 practise working through a problem together, and has the opportunity to reflect on the impact of their decisions and actions. 
- 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 – while some people may cringe at the thought of a ‘team away-day’, they serve a very useful purpose in helping develop the team’s shared mental model. The time spent together allows a team to learn more about each other’s strengths, weaknesses, preferences and past experiences.
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.
 Cannon-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.
 Van den Bossche, P., Gijselaers, W., Segers, M., Woltjer, G., & Kirschner, P. A. (2011). Team learning: Building shared mental models. Instructional Science, 39, 283-301.