Shared Mental Models are crucial for success.
Photo by Jason Goodman / Unsplash

Shared Mental Models: Why They Matter For Team Success

Nathan Baugh

Shared Mental Models is the most predictive measure of team success. Here’s a breakdown of what it is and why it’s important.

The concept of Shared Mental Models is simple - “A state in which the knowledge held by each member of a team is similar to other team members’ knowledge.” Sounds simple, but it's inherently difficult to put into action.

In team games, Shared Mental Models predict success better than overall ability. We’ve all seen it — the massive underdog looks confident and coordinated while the favorite can’t get anything right. The small startup outmaneuvers the legacy company. Here’s why this happens.

Team members’ actions must be aligned on 3 dimensions:

  1. Type
  2. Timing
  3. Location

Let’s explore each.

  1. Type - Achieving a team action means each member performs a certain type of action. For example - a quarterback makes a throw, the receiver makes a catch, and the linemen block. It gets more complicated…
  2. Timing - When one person performs a task, only one brain is required. Roger Federer hits a backhand and everything is good. But when a team performs a task, there are as many brains as team members. If one is out of sync, everything falls apart. Continuing our example - the quarterback does a 3-step drop, the receiver times his break, and the ball is on him immediately. This is almost impossible to guard. But if the timing is off by a split second, you get an incompletion.
  3. Location - Performing a team action requires each member at a specific location. For example - the receiver runs 5 yards and the quarterback puts the ball on his outside shoulder, moving him away from the defender. If the ball or receiver are in the wrong place, it's incomplete again.

The coordinated movement of teams is exceptionally difficult. And it only gets harder as your team grows. Here's some tips for fostering Shared Mental Models.

Shared Mental Models can be established:

  1. Before a game
  2. During a game

Both are necessary.

Before a game, teams acquire shared knowledge through planning and practice. Practice builds knowledge of ‘situational probabilities’ — how team members are likely to react in a given situation. Planning establishes a scripted set of actions to be taken.

But as Mike Tyson says: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That’s where in-game adjustments come in.

In-game adjustments come in two forms:

  • Inferred
  • Planned

A team that’s been together for a while may naturally shift strategies if one isn’t working. That’s an inferred change. But this is often too slow and unpredictable.

Planned in-game adjustments are the hardest to execute on, but the most important. Often, you have only minutes to communicate the new plan, get all team members onboard, and start executing. The best coaches and execs nail planned adjustments.

We used sports as an example, but let’s talk startups.

  • Type: Web3
  • Timing: Raising now
  • Location: NYC or Miami

Congrats, pick your valuation. And if you’re curious about those things, then you’re considering an in-game adjustment.

I love the simplicity of Shared Mental Models. It’s crucial in every field, from sport to business. Nail the Type, Timing, and Location of your team’s actions, and your chance of success soars.

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