Team Mental Models & Visual Thinking

Mental models are representations of the world around us that we hold cognitively, in other words in our minds. Such models help us to explain the relationships and situations we are in, condition how we act and react, as well as help us to predict what may happen next. Every individual has a unique mental model based on her or his life experience. To understand why individuals behave as they do, it helps to understand their particular mental model. Our mental models have been likened to personal internal algorithms (


Team Mental Models

As the term suggests, a team mental model is also a representation of the world that individuals working and/or playing together share in common. The illustration above captures the general idea.

Accordingly, team mental models help anticipate, predict, and coordinate what team members are going to do. This shared cognition also enables team members to respond to change on a cooperative basis. Research indicates that the greater the convergence between the mental models of team members, the greater their effectiveness will be as a team. The ability to perceive the needs of other team members is the result of the overlapping of their mental models. This “produces a mutual awareness, with which team members can reason not only about their own situation, but the status and activities of the other members of the team and progress of the team toward its goal” (Implementing Shared Mental Models for Collaborative Teamwork). Conversely, the larger a team is, the lower the likelihood of a shared mental model altogether.

Teams: Creativity & Innovation

We know the greater convergence of mental models, the better that team’s performance. What’s less known is if this  has any impact on the creative results of design teams more specifically. This is a vital question given “the increasing complexity of technological and societal processes in the last decades has converted design into an activity that is mainly carried out by teams” (Psychology_of_Creativity_Mental_Models_in_Design_Teams).

It’s suggested “to understand design creativity it is necessary to assess the way design teams behave and perform” (Ibid). That is, the diversity of team member’s thinking in relationship to their shared mental model. In other words, they must seek as many “alternatives as possible in order to enhance chances of reaching creative design solutions, and avoid discarding ideas prematurely” (ibid). Accordingly, “a design team sharing a mental model from the beginning has better chances to perform better, and reach a larger number of innovative solutions” (ibid).

Moreover, visual representations help catalyze and crystalize the development of team mental models and shared understanding. This is particularly evident in creative fields such as design, film, advertising, and architecture where team-based visual thinking and expression is paramount (ibid). They may use appropriated and/or self-generated images, diagrams, photographs, and sketches, for example, to represent highly complex concepts. These visual resources facilitate communication within teams as well as contribute to the strengthening of their shared mental models and ultimately to enhancing creative output. This also forms a visual inventory drawn upon “during the generation of design ideas, and the development of alternative solutions” (ibid). The old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is especially relevant. Indeed, “they are highly suitable for supporting reasoning, clarification, coordination, and communication among design team members in a cognitive economical way” (ibid). “Although design teams might be aware of the importance of creativity when tackling design problems, they may not be always conscious that it is not possible to support creativity without sharing and adapting individual mental models to the team mental model” (ibid).

Serious Game Example

Prelude is a serious game that uses a combination of a proprietary psychometric and creative process to help virtual teams better understand each other and themselves. In the process, players create and co-create a series of artifacts on an individual and team basis respectively. This occurs during the forming stage of a team’s development. Not only does this experiential process reduce the tensions inherent in this initial state, it also helps enhance the team’s mental model explicitly and positively.  It can also likely enhance the more specific work of design teams, especially those working virtually.


Forming Storming Prelude



Howard Esbin, PhDTeam Mental Models & Visual Thinking