Multi-team systems over time: what about planning and shared mental models?


Hannes Geunter, Maarten Cuijpers and Sjir Uitdewilligen

Further information

Introduction and position in the current literature
Collective efforts of multiple teams are vital to many organizations. Public health organizations increasingly rely on networks of teams to contain outbreaks of diseases; scientific progress often depends on cooperation among research teams; and emergency management organizations cooperate in integrated team structures in order to gain control of emergencies1,2. Interestingly, research has focused largely on the functioning of single teams. To shift focus towards the functioning of collectives of teams, this research project investigates performance in multi-team systems, that is, collectives of teams jointly responsible for the achievement of higher-order goals3,4,5.

Research questions & hypothesis
More specifically, we study two problems prevalent in any multi-team system:

  • First, we investigate the importance of planning in multi-team systems because plans provide the structure necessary for concerted and synchronized action, for example, when fighting man-made (e.g., airliner disaster) or natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes).
  • Second, we investigate the importance of shared understanding across team boundaries. We study how such shared mental models, together with planning, facilitate performance in multi-team systems6. To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to investigate the combined effects of planning and shared mental models in a multi-team system setting.

We build and test a dynamic mediation model on the association of planning, shared mental models, and performance in multi-team systems. We hypothesize that increases in planning lead to a convergence of mental models which should facilitate performance over time7.

Research methods
We use an existing dataset consisting of 67 multi-team systems to test the model. This multi-method data was collected by means of a low-fidelity real-time command-and-control fire fighting computer simulation (in a large-scale laboratory experiment in 2010; Network Social Innovation grant 2010). During the simulation, fires break out in a virtual world and (student) participants needed to use fire trucks to extinguish fires and bulldozers to clear land and prevent fires from spreading. Multiple planning phases were designed into the experiment to allow participants to prepare for future action.

Results & follow-ups


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  2. Myers, K. K., & McPhee, R. D. (2006), Influences on member assimilation in workgroups in high-reliability organizations: A multilevel analysis, Human Communication Research, 32(4): 440-468.
  3. Mathieu, J. E., Marks, M. A., & Zaccaro, S. J. (2001), Multi-team systems, In N. Anderson, D.S. Ones, H. K. Singali, & C. Viswesvaran (Eds.), Organizational psychology: Vol. 2. Handbook of industrial, work and organizational psychology: 289-313. London: Sage.
  4. DeChurch, L. A., & Marks, M. A. (2006), Leadership in multiteam systems, Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 311-329.
  5. Marks, M. A., DeChurch, L. A., Mathieu, J. E., Panzer, F. J., & Alonso, A. (2005), Teamwork in multiteam systems, Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 964-971.
  6. Uitdewilligen S., Waller, M. J. & Zijlstra F. (2010), Team cognition and adaptability in dynamic settings: A review of pertinent work. To appear in G.P. Hodgkinson and J.K. Ford (Eds.), International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Vol. 25), Chichester, UK: Wiley.
  7. Pitariu, A. H., & Ployhart, R. E. (2010), Explaining change: Theorizing and testing dynamic mediated longitudinal relationships. Journal of Management.