On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Team quickness

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

"There's quickness an individual has, but when a team has quickness together, that is what makes our game so beautiful. They played seamlessly." Those are the words of Coach Mike Krzyzewski, best known as the basketball coach at Duke University, and the US Men's Basketball team coach at the 2012 Olympics in London. But he wasn't describing his team.

Lithuanian team

He was talking about a Lithuanian team that pushed the US team to the brink of defeat before losing a close game. The Americans had players like Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant, widely acknowledged as the best players in the world. Lithuania countered with lesser known players such as Linus Kleiza, Šarūnas Jasikevičius, and Martynas Pocius, yet they made it a close game by the way they played together.

What did Coach K mean by "having team quickness together"? A team researcher might explain that by saying the Lithuanian's possessed a shared mental model which allowed them to demonstrate implicit coordination. OK, perhaps that's just as cryptic. So what's going on here?

Members of highly effective teams often possess a shared understanding about the task, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and their roles on the team. They also share a common view about team priorities and what to do when certain situations arise. This allows them to anticipate needs and take coordinated action, at times without any verbal communications. That's what enabled the Lithuanian's to exhibit the "team quickness" to which Coach K alluded. And it's not just sports teams that demonstrate this type of implicit coordination. I've seen members of high-performing surgical teams and top notch kitchen crews anticipate needs and take action before the surgeon or chef vocalized a request.

What does the science of teamwork have to say about this? In the journal Group Dynamics, researchers Leslie DeChurch and Jessica Mesmer-Magnus reported meta-analytic findings (empirically combined results) from over 20 studies. A conclusion from their research: all else being equal, teams with shared mental models consistently outperform other teams.

But what about that team you worked on for years; you might be thinking, how come we never developed anything remotely resembling team quickness? Unfortunately, simply working together often isn't enough. I'll explore how teams can build shared mental models in a future post.

Have you ever been on or observed a team that clearly possessed a shared mental model? How would you describe that experience?