On September 11 2012, 15.00 I defended successfully my thesis at the TU Delft, faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. Topic: teamcognition. Or to be more precise: facilitating team cognition. It is the end of a quest in my life that lasted five years and took many unexpected turns. As Bateson already mentioned: “an explorer can never know what he is exploring until it has been explored”.
I considered organizational culture key for product development teams to align and coordinate their activities. How wrong I could be… When I started I considered that in order to align activities team members need to have ‘something’ in common, in their minds. It is a common assumption deeply rooted in the Cartesian tradition: just consider the many publications and books on ‘shared mental models’; ‘shared vision’; or ‘shared understanding’. All these notions assume that team members have something similar in their minds, and experiments are geared for finding the holy grail, namely this ‘something’. For small teams -like two pilots- and explicit training there is empirical evidence for this ‘something’. However, for large, multi-disciplinary, fluid, self-organizing teams it never has been found, or the results are contradictory. Product Development teams are large, heterogeneous, fluid and self-organizing…. So how do these kind of teams do align their activities into a seamless whole?
Possibly the most disturbing finding of my research is that even when the job is finished, and a great team result has been achieved, the team members have rather different framings on what they did and why. It is hard to believe that something as a ‘shared understanding’ has arisen. Maybe on matters as planning, but not on the content itself. Still, what the team members do have in common is their jointly constructed practice While collaborating prototypes are built, CAD models developed, and code is written. The result is a seamless whole because all team members individually interrelate their activities to those of others. They fit their activities into the large system they envision and learn on the go what the system is. As a result and in an emerging way, a joint practice is constructed. The joint practice provides the anchors for team members to orient themselves onto.
Complex? No. Put simply: there is (most likely) no such thing a shared understanding that facilitates the alignment and coordination of activities, but there is a shared reality we all engage in. No non-observable thinking patterns, but tangible objects. Starting from the world to coordinate and align: it is a new and exiting assumption,for example to manage large teams. The thesis is not the end: it is just the beginning of another quest!