An unexpected and remarkable finding in my study on teamcognition in product development teams was the contribution of tangible objects. Individual cognition is heavily influenced by our experiences, what is named ‘embodied cognition’. As these experiences are largely the same all people, for it showed to be a key ingredient to align and coordinate activities in teams.
An assumption that underlies many popular books and articles on cognition, is that conscious thinking precedes activities. We do something because we thought about it beforehand. Consequently, if two or more persons align their activities, also the alignment and coordination must precede the activities. Put simply: people can only align their activities if (1) they have something in common in their minds, such as a ‘shared mental model’ or a ‘shared understanding’. Or (2) by means of explicit communication, geared for coordination. This line of reasoning permeates many theories on teamcognition, and is directly related to the century-old mind/body dualism of Descartes. This dualism concerns that the mind inside the body is independent of it and operates the body knowingly. It is cynically named the ‘ghost in the machine’ by G. Ryle in his classic book ‘The Concept of Mind’ (1949).
However, many things we do are not a result of what we know consciously; rather, what we know is in our activities. This has been argued by influential writers as Lakoff, based on the progressing insights in cognitive sciences. Their point is: our rationality is greatly influenced by our bodily experiences. Despite the overwhelming evidence gathered lately, most of us still consider this argument ‘funny’ at best.
Team cognition is the underlying mechanism of (observable) alignment and coordination of activities in teams.
I found an overwhelming range of evidence that supports the stance that cognition is embodied. More important: it is a key insight for understanding team cognition. Within my PhD study, I filmed a truly surprising meeting, because the team discovered and dealt well with some problems swiftly. Note: problems they only discovered in the meeting. What draw my attention to this particular meeting, was that the transcribed dialogue was nearly incomprehensible. Team members jumped from one topic to another. Problems that are mentioned seem to come out of nowhere. Proposed solutions are agreed on nearly instantly, without any debate. In short: the meeting seemed to be haphazard and chaotic, but turned out to be extremely effective, aligning activities of many for months afterwards. So: what happened?
In the meeting, team members gathered around a tangible prototype and interacted with it heavily. Experiments were done, and role play was conducted whereby one team member was assigned to act as a user. The interactions of the team members with the prototype showed to be particularly relevant to understand the meeting. The film is analyzed for cues that preceded decisive shifts in the team meeting. Nearly 50% of the decisive shifts (!) are attributed to cues that are a result of interactions with the prototype. The bodily experiences shaped what team members seemed to think and mentioned, whereby all senses are important. Consider sight (” we need a light over here”); hearing (“you hear what is happening!”); or touch (“Wait, wait! I feel it is stuck!”). Some problems nobody considered before were articulated, because an (unpleasant) experience draw the attention to it. In a particular situation, a team member had been sitting on his knees for two minutes in order to prepare this evaluation for the team. He asked:”Will users sit on their knees?”. Nobody considered it and took it seriously until the feeling of painful knees draw the attention of someone.
This may seem obvious: put someone in an uncomfortable position and he will frame the situation differently. Yet this insight is key for understanding teamcognition. The experiences with tangible objects are relatively the same for all involved, providing a solid ground for people to come to an agreement. It is well possible to discuss abstract topics and to disagree, but it is hard to disagree on a the feelings of sore knees… It explains well why on some topics the team came to a swift agreement. The finding has far-reaching consequences. It shift the focus from communication to interactions and experiences. Just consider the many meetings that are held right now, worldwide, and whereby all involved are talking, talking and talking. How many of those critical meeting include tangible objects or are organized in such a way that the decision makers can ‘get a feel’ of what they are talking about? 1 out of 100?
image credits: ccad.edu
Guido Stompff is a senior designer inside a large, innovative R&D environment. His interest in design research and understanding design, teams, and creative collaborative efforts resulted in a PhD study : Facilitation Teamcognition. How designers mirror what teams do. It combines insights on teams, innovation, reflection-in-action, sensemaking and design, into a new perspective on multi-disciplinary teams, highlighting how teams ‘think collectively’. Learn more at teamcognition.org