Mental Models

May 20, 2021

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”
– Michael Jordan

Out of the many historical moments in sports history, one of the most famous examples to act as a demonstration of teamwork is the 1992 USA Men’s Olympic Basketball Team, or also known as the Dream Team. Not only did the Dream Team take the gold medal during the Olympics in Barcelona, but they were an absolute dominating force on the course winning all 8 of their games by an average of 44 points.

It’s not easy to ignore that part of their victories was who was on their roster, including Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. But looking back on their highlights, there was something more there than the sum of the parts making the team. The team’s ability to control the game by acting as a single unit and coordinate on quick decision plays is something that makes the Dream Team renowned to this day. Throughout their team plays, the Dream Team was always aware of where the ball, the opponents, and their teammates are going and act accordingly to obtain victories. This goes beyond individual athleticism. It involves every member knowing what to do. It involves everyone having the same mindset and plan to achieve the collective goal. It is about making a blind pass and knowing your teammate will be there, and your teammate knowing the ball is coming to them. There is no need to say what the team should do while they are doing it. Each member sees the current situation, are aware of what their teammates are doing, and can still be able to coordinate by knowing what they will do individually.

This process is known in teamwork research as implicit coordination: the ability for a member to provide support, actions, and information to a fellow team member that needs them without being overtly told to. Implicit coordination involves each teammate having a shared understanding about the team’s objectives, what each team member is responsible for, and how the team works as a whole to achieve their collective goal. But how do teams get on the same page to achieve implicit coordination?

There is a theory about how this occurs: the concept of mental models. Mental models are defined as the structures of taskwork and teamwork knowledge. Taskwork knowledge is what you need to know to be skilled at the job (i.e., individual ability, knowing the rules and procedures of the task, etc.). Teamwork knowledge—an important factor for interdependent tasks—is what you need to know when you interact with fellow teammates (how your work relates to the work of others, how you coordinate with teammates, etc.). When multiple individuals are collaborating on a task, not only should they strive for developing an expert knowledge base about their own task, but also consider the similarity of each team member’s mental model . Sharing the same knowledge about what the team will do facilitates communication and coordination, which leads to enhanced team performance. Shared mental models are also known to reduce role confusion, increase awareness when backing up assistance from team members is needed, and reduce the time needed to explain everyone’s responsibilities and focus more on the task.

So if you strive to increase the sharedness of the mental models of your team, what steps can you take? Primarily, building knowledge is key. Taking time before the team task to plan and prepare can provide an opportunity for members to understand how each member contributes to the collective effort. This can take place in training new team members, discussing everybody’s roles and responsibilities during meetings, and briefings before tackling an upcoming project. Building the appropriate knowledge structures can be facilitated in having information accessible to the team. Reference materials and guides that frame tasks in how the entire team is involved can help in showing how everyone’s work is interrelated to achieving the common goal.

An effective approach to focus on team mental model development is the Team Evaluation and Alignment Meeting (TEAM), a facilitated all day session that gives team members the opportunity to learn teamwork skills to enhance their performance. TEAMs are one of many tools that Gallaher Edge utilizes to elicit the best coordination practices within teams, helping you master teamwork like the Dream Team. Through TEAMs, you can learn to identify the teamwork factors that contribute to performance obstacles, and develop interventions to help teams improve their coordination and facilitate organizational output. By applying the necessary techniques and focusing on developing and improving team mental models, you can begin to see your team’s true potential.

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