In-Depth: Why Great (Scrum) Teams Have A Mind Of Their Own
What scientific research on team cognition tells us about high-performing teams
This post is part of our “in-depth” series. Each post discusses scientific research that is relevant to our work with Scrum and Agile teams. With this series, we hope to contribute to more evidence-based conversations in our community and a stronger reliance on robust research over (only) personal opinions. You can also listen to a podcast of this episode.
A common platitude about teams is that “1+1 = 3”. This highlights the notion that teams are more than just the accumulation of the skills, experience, creativity, and capacity of their members. If you’ve ever been part of a high-performing team — or a band for that matter — you know how that feels. We’re talking about those moments of crisis where the team is faced with a demanding challenge, and everyone just seems to intuitively know how to act and constructively add to each other's contributions. It's almost like the team has a “mind” of its own.
Organizational psychologists call this “team cognition”. Research in this area has much to say about what makes some teams more effective than others. We recap some of the research in this area and translate it into actionable suggestions. At the end of this post you will have learned:
- How team cognition is essentially the “mind of a team”, with its own memory and perception of the world.
- What team cognition is and how substantial its influence is on the effectiveness of teams according to large-scale research efforts.
- How team cognition helps us understand what cross-functionality should look like for Scrum teams.
- What team cognition looks like for Scrum teams, and what signs tell you whether it's there or not. And if it isn’t, what you can do about that.
- What research in this area tells us about how you can design, support, and encourage teams to develop team cognition and become high-performing.
- Why frequent changes to team composition are not a good idea if you want to maintain effectiveness, no matter how they are initiated.
Perhaps you would be willing to support our work in writing and researching these topics. Go to patreon.com/liberators to see how to do this.
How Mental Models Help Us Understand The World
In order to understand team cognition, we have to take one step back and look at how people perceive and understand the world, and how they use that understanding to guide their behavior.
Suppose for a moment that you’re going for a nightly stroll in an unknown city. Would you take a shortcut through a dark alley? Why not? Most of us perceive and interpret a dark alley as a dangerous place due to the potential for robbery, and so we avoid them behaviorally. Now suppose that this dark alley isn’t in an unknown city, but right next to your house. Depending on where you live, this may change things considerably. For one, I’m perfectly happy to venture into the alley behind my house in the middle of the night. All I may find there is a stray cat.
So the way we understand the world around us is based on categories. A “dark alley” is a dangerous place if it's “in an unknown city”, but not when it is next to a place I call “home”. Over time, psychologists have come to call these categories and the meaning we assign to them “cognitive frames” or “mental models”.
Cognitive psychologists have long argued that we make sense of the world and ourselves through mental models. And while that may seem trivial, it has important ramifications for how to change behavior. For example, you can think of yourself as “shy and withdrawn” or you can identify and change the mental models that elicit withdrawal behaviors from social settings. Or you can investigate which models drive you to judge your behavior in a negative light. In fact, the most effective therapies according to empirical research (e.g. Butler et al, 2006, Tolin, 2010) are based on this approach (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, CBT).
From Individual Models To Team Mental Models
Now that we’ve established what mental models look like for individuals, we can make the leap to teams. Because there is ample evidence that teams develop mental models about themselves, their work, and their environment, and that those models shape their behavior and effectiveness.
This may sound abstract, but examples are easy to find when you know what to look for. One example is when teams have a clear and shared understanding of what “quality” means, or what the purpose of their work together is, or how they respond to failure and uncertainty. Shared memories of how the team overcame past challenges are also shared mental models, especially if they inform future behavior for similar challenges. On a smaller scale, team members also have mental models about what to expect from each other. Members may know who is good at a certain skill, who is still learning, and where to get help. Finally, mental models also concern the sequencing of work and which activities are involved. For example, a developer may know that (s)he starts with writing unit tests, then pairs with another developer to write the code, and then asks a tester in the team to verify it again. The key point here is that the degree to which mental models are shared varies by team.
“This may sound abstract, but examples are easy to find when you know what to look for.”
This notion is at the root of what organizational psychologists call team cognition. One way to think about this is as a “distributed team mind”, with its own memory and mental models, that is shared across its members. Research has linked team cognition to higher performance and motivation (Mathieu et al, 2000), increased effectiveness (Kearny, Gebert & Voelpel, 2009), and generally explains a substantial amount of the variance (~19%) in the effectiveness of teams (De Church & Mesmer-Magnus, 2010). In fact, several of the measures we use in the Scrum Team Survey tap into mental models about quality, product purpose, and safety, and we see similar patterns there. De Chuch & Mesmer-Magnus (2010) further point out that team cognition provides both the structure that guides behavior in teams, but that team cognition also grows as a result of frequent interaction. So in a sense, the team mind grows as members work together more frequently.
All this means that if you want to improve team effectiveness, team cognition is a strong contributor to design and optimize for.
“All this means that if you want to improve team effectiveness, team cognition is a strong contributor to design and optimize for.”
So What Does This Mean For Scrum Teams?
So what should a “team mind” look like, especially for Scrum teams? De Church & Mesmer-Magnus (2010) analyzed the results from 58 independent scientific studies into team cognition and team effectiveness and found several compelling insights. A strength of such “meta-analyses” is that they allow us to see patterns across many different studies, and reach firmer evidence-based conclusions.
Insight #1: Cross-Functionality and Compilation Over Composition
The first insight concerns what cross-functionality should look like for Scrum teams. The evidence clearly shows that it is more important for members to have a clear and shared mental map of what they know and what others know than it is to know everything equally well. In other words, cross-functionality is not a matter of achieving a state where everyone in the team can do any kind of task and knows the same things, but about making clear what each member knows and how they can bring that knowledge together. This is referred to as “compilation” (members know how to bring their unique knowledge together) over “composition” (everyone shares the same knowledge).
What does this mean for your Scrum Team?
- You can invest in compilation through skill matrices. These make transparent who has which skills, who knows what and where gaps exist. It is a good idea to periodically refine these too. It is helpful to create similar matrices for external dependencies so that it is clear where to go for help or advice. A map of important stakeholders can create similar transparency around which stakeholders to include when.
- Practices like Peer- and Mob programming are a good way to share mental models about coding practices and to get a better sense of everyone’s skills and strengths. One clear example of compilation is when analysts or testers learn how coders prefer to get test cases, or when coders know what is most helpful to show Product Owners before a Sprint Review.
- If your organization or team invests heavily in the idea that everyone should know everything equally (same skills, same knowledge), this article and the corresponding paper can convince them otherwise. It's really more helpful to learn teams how they can bring their individual skills together on a shared task.
- The Daily Scrum exists for compilation: how will the members in your team bring their skills, knowledge, and strengths together today to achieve the Sprint Goal? So use it for this purpose.
“Cross-functionality is […] about making clear what each member knows and how they can bring that knowledge together.”
Insight #2: It Takes Time To Develop Team Cognition
Team cognition forms over time as the members of a team work together on shared tasks. In turn, this facilitates further collaboration. Kozlowski & Ilgen (2006) describe this reciprocity as “process begets structure, which in turn guides process”. This also provides evidence for something that most of us have seen in Scrum teams: if you change team composition— even by a single person — it sometimes feels like you have to start over as a team. Even small changes to a team can fracture team cognition by scooping out part of the “team mind”. The team has to then effectively rebuild the mental models about who knows what in a team, as well as how to collaborate on tasks in this new configuration. This isn’t just a matter of creating a new skill matrix but also rebuilding habits (mental models) for how decisions are made in a team, how conflict is navigated, how goals are set, and how problems are addressed collectively.
What does this mean for your Scrum team?
- Whenever the composition of a team changes, it will take time to rebuild and synchronize mental models. So it's reasonable to prevent frequent changes to team composition where possible if the aim is to build high-performing teams. Even changes that are initiated by teams still require recalibration and are very likely to cause a drop in effectiveness. It may also be possible — but I haven’t found clear evidence for this — to build strong shared mental models across teams through shared training and large group interventions that involve everyone.
- It is a good idea to purposefully spend time with re-formed teams to talk about who possesses which skills, who is experienced in what, and how people want to collaborate together. One way to do this is through story-telling. You can use a Liberating Structure like Appreciative Interviews to let team members share stories of how they collaborated successfully in the past. Which steps were involved? What was done as part of each step? By going through these “work scripts”, you can help the team recalibrate its mental models.
- When teams train together, they are more likely to develop more extensive team cognition (Stout, R. J., Cannon-Bowers, J. A., & Salas, 2017). This is well-known for teams in the armed forces and other expert teams (like first responders). But it isn’t that common for Scrum teams. So don’t just send a Scrum Master to a Scrum training, but do it together with the entire team to boost team effectiveness.
- One element of the Scrum framework that is particularly useful here is the Definition of Done. It should be a clear mental model that describes what quality means to a team. So it is a good idea to constantly refer to it in your deliberations and decision-making. One approach is to take a few items from the Sprint Backlog and purposefully talk about all the steps that you as a team would need to perform (in what order and by whom) to achieve something that is “Done”.
“Frequent changes in team composition should be avoided where possible. Even changes that are initiated by teams still require recalibration and are very likely to cause a drop in effectiveness.”
Insight #3: Interdependency Drives Team Cognition
De Church & Mesmer-Magnus (2010) also investigated the role of interdependence in teams. They found that the impact of team cognition on the effectiveness of teams increases as members depend more on each other to complete work. And that makes sense. If people in a team are not working together, and everyone is basically doing their own thing, the benefit of working as a team diminishes. 1+1 becomes 2 again, and not the 3 that it can be.
“If people in a team are not working together […] the benefit of working as a team diminishes. 1+1 becomes 2 again, and not the 3 that it can be.”
This finding also emphasizes why single shared goals — like Sprint- and Product Goals — are so important. They are shared mental models in their own right because they provide a shared explanation as to why the work is important and what is going to happen in which order. A good goal, therefore, should clarify a desired (end) state and guide the sequencing of events in that direction. Shared goals also create interdependence by giving everyone a clear reason to collaborate. And through that interdependence, team cognition will form more quickly and the team will become more effective.
What does this mean for your Scrum team?
- When you recognize that your Scrum team is more a group of individuals than an actual team, invest in Sprint Goals and a Product Goal with your Product Owner. If you need help here, Barry Overeem and I created three do-it-yourself workshops (#1, #2, and #3) to help your team here.
- You can encourage team cognition through shared strategizing. Before starting on an item, strategize together as a team which steps are needed to accomplish it. Sprint Planning and the Daily Scrum are excellent opportunities for this.
This post was all about team cognition and shared mental models. Although there is a lot more to say about this topic, the key takeaway is that scientific research helps us understand why some teams are really teams where others remain groups of individuals.
We also offered actionable suggestions on how to develop team cognition in your team. Hopefully, this post inspires you to rethink how you or your organization designs and supports the Scrum teams. There is a clear scientific consensus on what makes teams more effective. It's unfortunate that most of those insights are largely ignored in practice. So let's take this knowledge into organizations and teams and help make them more effective. And enjoyable.
The Scrum Team Survey is a scientifically and statistically validated survey that allows you to diagnose your Scrum team. You can participate with one team for free — as often as you want — or you can subscribe to use it with many Scrum teams in your organization.
Butler, A. C., Chapman, J. E., Forman, E. M., & Beck, A. T. (2006). The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses. Clinical psychology review, 26(1), 17–31.
Cannon‐Bowers, J. A., & Salas, E. (2001). Reflections on shared cognition. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 22(2), 195–202.
DeChurch, L. A., & Mesmer-Magnus, J. R. (2010). The cognitive underpinnings of effective teamwork: a meta-analysis. Journal of applied psychology, 95(1), 32.
Kearney, E., Gebert, D., & Voelpel, S. C. (2009). When and how diversity benefits teams: The importance of team members’ need for cognition. Academy of Management journal, 52(3), 581–598.
Kozlowski, S. W., & Ilgen, D. R. (2006). Enhancing the effectiveness of work groups and teams. Psychological science in the public interest, 7(3), 77–124.
Mathieu, J. E., Heffner, T. S., Goodwin, G. F., Salas, E., & Cannon-Bowers, J. A. (2000). The influence of shared mental models on team process and performance. Journal of applied psychology, 85(2), 273.
Stout, R. J., Cannon-Bowers, J. A., & Salas, E. (2017). The role of shared mental models in developing team situational awareness: Implications for training. Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division.
Tolin, D. F. (2010). Is cognitive–behavioral therapy more effective than other therapies?: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 30(6), 710–720.