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  • Writer's pictureKate Earle

What Do Bikes and Teams Have in Common?


Have you ever ridden a bike? If so, can you explain how one works? Before trying, give yourself a rating as to how accurate your explanation will be. A rating of 1 would mean "I have a lot to learn." A rating of 10 would mean "I'm an expert!."


In his recent book, Anatomy of a Breakthrough, Adam Alter reveals that when asked this question the majority of people rate themselves a 6 or 7. However, when they try to put their knowledge into words they realize how little they actually know about how a bike works. As Alter explains, "we mistake our superficial understanding of what a bike is for how a bike works."


This phenomenon has a fancy term: the illusion of explanatory depth. Put more simply, we overestimate our understanding of complex systems. We mistake familiarity with a concept for comprehension. We may have a surface-level understanding of something (like what a bike is), but when asked to articulate how that something functions (like how a bike works) we realize our understanding is not as deep as we thought.


We think bikes and teams have something in common. If you've ever been part of a team, you're probably pretty confident that you know how one works. But try explaining those inner workings and you might be surprised to find yourself stumbling over your words. We assume our familiarity with being part of a team automatically translates into expertise in how teams function. The reality is that effective teamwork involves complex interactions and processes that go beyond mere participation. There are nuances in communication, decision-making, leadership styles, and interpersonal relationships that contribute to a team's success or failure. We don't always fully grasp these intricacies until asked to explain them.


So, how can we overcome the illusion of understanding when it comes to teams?


Question Your Assumptions

Regularly challenge yourself to articulate how teams work and why certain dynamics are effective or not. Recognize that there may be aspects you don’t fully comprehend.


Seek Feedback

Ask for input from team members or colleagues who have different perspectives or experiences. This can help broaden your understanding and uncover blind spots.


Continuous Learning

Invest time in studying team dynamics, leadership theories, and effective communication strategies. The more you learn, the more you’ll realize how much there is still to discover.


Embrace Humility

Acknowledge that true expertise in team dynamics requires ongoing learning and adaptation. Stay open to new ideas and approaches.


The illusion of explanatory depth reminds us of the importance of humility and critical thinking in our understanding of complex systems like teams. By acknowledging our limitations and actively seeking deeper insights, we can become more effective collaborators and leaders in any team setting. Let’s challenge ourselves to move beyond surface-level understanding and strive for true comprehension of how teams truly work.

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