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Teambuilding: The Meaning of Shared Meaning

Since the dawn of mankind, people banded together to increase their odds for survival. Lacking sharp teeth and fearsome claws, our predecessors found strength in working together. Collaboratively, people took on challenges far beyond the capabilities of an individual and became the masters of the planet. With time, the needs and goals of humans became loftier, more diverse and complex, to the point of exceeding groups ability to achieve them. This situation forced the collaboration group to take the next step and become a team.

The most important difference between collaboration groups and teams is the development of shared meaning by the teams. Shared meaning is what multiplies the efforts of members, rather than simply summing them up as it is with groups. This article is explaining what is shared meaning in order to help you better understand the mechanism that make teams productive.

Shared meaning is nothing but a shared mental model, therefore to explain shared meaning we first need to explain what is a mental model. A mental model is a simplified representation of objects and events in our minds. Every time we observe an object, we analyze it through decomposition. In other words we break down the object description to its characteristics or attributes. We extract its attributes like size, shape color, etc. and then we rank them in terms of relevance. The "not-so-important" attributes are ignored, while the rest collectively describe the object. This description is called mental model.

Models are further abstracted into higher-level models. For example the word "car" represent a simplification or a pattern of attributes found in the description of millions of objects with some common characteristics. However, the word "vehicle" includes other objects that are not cars but do share a subset of cars "important" characteristics.

Eventually, we end up with a hierarchy of models that collectively describe the world, as we know it. Further more, the brain can start making predictions on what objects are possible to exist based on what was reflected from the real objects. Finally, the models and the hierarchy itself is constantly in flux and changes with every bit of new information we absorb. So do the "conclusions" or projected models. In a nutshell, this is the process of learning, getting smarter and more experienced.

However, it is obvious from the process described above that by definition models are imperfect, since they don't include the attributes of every object related to the model. This also means that our perception of reality is not a 100% accurate. It is rather an approximation.

Going further, it is evident that the error made during the model creation propagates into the model hierarchy and accumulates. Since this process is random in the sense that every individual deems irrelevant different attributes, it is possible for individuals to work themselves up into a completely different universe from the rest of us. Looking at this, it is not only evident that we see things differently, but it is puzzling that we can communicate at all.

A logical question than is why we make different selection of attributes if we observe the same object? In other words, what makes us different? Let me share a little story that will shed some light on that subject.

One particular Sunday I attended a church service with my family. It was an Eastern Orthodox Church and there were candles planted in trays filled with sand. As one may expect from a five year old kid, my son became bored, but remained quiet while looking for something that will tickle his interest. He found it in the candles. There is something magical in the sight of an open flame and he decided to explore it. First he leaned slightly forward and felt the warmth coming from the candles below his face. And as soon as he did that, a few strands of the hair on his forehead were burned. He immediately stepped back in surprise. Anyway, since it wasn't painful he started leaning forward again. The image of him in flames flashed before my eyes and I pulled him out quickly. The next half hour was spent explaining why he shouldn't do that and although he agreed I got the feeling that he didn't accept my theory of pain.

Later, we had barbeque in our backyard and he saw the flames in the kettle. Oh boy, was he curious! Despite the many warnings from everyone, he sneaked up and touched the kettle. The result of his experiment was announced loudly for everyone to hear. The funny thing is that I never had to warn him again about the danger of fire somehow he got it.

But the story didn't end here. We bought one of those electric fireplaces that look so real. It does not have a real flame, but the flame looks very realistic. He understood that it is not real and wanted to touch it, but the painful memory stopped him and he asked if it is hot. He made an assumption based on his previous experience that the flame could be hot, despite that it is just an image and not a real flame. It is easy to predict that flame will be equal to hot for him regardless of the reality.

Our attribute selection in the development of mental models is guided by lessons learned from previous experience.

Additionally, education, culture, religion, family relations and general background provide a criterion for prioritizing attributes of the objects we observe. Since those factors forming our assumptions are unique and personal, our mental models are bound to be unique and personal as well. It is evident that the inaccuracies of our mental models are not only function of the object simplification, but also a function of the inaccuracies of our assumptions.