Cross Understanding in Teams

The term “cross understanding” comes from a new article by George Huber and Kyle Lewis at UT Austin. It’s essentially a theoretical elaboration of the widespread observation that  “T-Shaped” people result in more innovative collaborations.The term “T-shaped people” is usually attributed to Tim Brown of IDEO and a 2007 article in Fast Company magazine, where Tim says:

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need.

In this 2010 journal article, Huber and Lewis define cross understanding as follows:

Cross-understanding refers to the extent to which group members have an accurate understanding of one another’s mental models.

They argue that cross understanding can help us to explain several apparently contradictory findings in group collaboration research:

  1. Diversity often has a negative impact on team performance, and this is sometimes explained by the “social categorization bias” that people have towards similar people. But in some groups, diversity does not result in reduced performance; the authors argue that this will happen when cross understanding is high.
  2. In some groups, strong sub-groups can interfere with effective collaboration. But if cross understanding is high, this problem can be reduced.

Many business managers already believe in the value of T-Shaped people, so this article doesn’t really introduce a new idea. But it’s a very nice theoretical presentation and it successfully connects this idea to existing literature on teams, and helps us better understand some apparent contradictions in the literature on the role of diversity in team effectiveness.