Common Ground and Coordination in Joint Activity - Part 1

This week is the first part of a chapter from the book Organizational Simulation. The chapter is by Gary Klein, Paul Feltovich, Jeffrey Bradshaw, and David Woods. Because of how extensive the chapter is and the multiple angles from which it looks at coordination, I’ll be dividing it up across two issues, so keep an eye out for the next part soon.

The linked source is a scan that has had fairly inaccurate OCR applied to it. I don’t have another copy currently, but if you need help finding a more accessible copy, please reach out to me and I’ll help where I can!

Common Ground and Coordination in Joint Activity

Overall, this chapter goes over how it is that people can work together. That might seem obvious on the surface, but they looked into what are the bits and pieces that actually allow it to happen and then how can those bits and pieces be either reinforced or lost. This to me was really the meat of the chapter.

Understanding this as we respond to incidents, especially, as they grow beyond the capabilities of a single responder, I think helps greatly. Not just single incidents, but overall how we approach incident management.

Also, from my own experience in responding to and managing incidents, I’ve seen a lot of the same patterns the authors identify.

The authors layout several terms and then build on them and connect them together. First off is_joint activity_, which is essentially any time two people are working together, where their actions and work are interdependent. So if you and I are working on the same math problems in separate rooms we can’t be said to be undertaking a joint activity. Nor are we if you do half of the project and I do the other half and we simply run them together. Joint activity is where we will each relax our individual goals a bit in service of some larger goal that we can now achieve together.

When participants engage in joint activity they each assume a_basic compact_, an agreement spoken or otherwise, that they are going to continue to work together and try to prevent breakdown of coordination. Each person is generally expected to do their part and not just continue common ground but repair it and then continue to establish.

The authors build off of Herbert H. Clark’s previous research into what coordination is required to carry on a conversation. In order to do that, the authors look at joint activity through three different activities: relay races, driving in traffic, and coaching high school football teams. In the chapter the authors don’t reveal to us much about the data they saw in each domain or very much that is specific about those domains, but primarily focus on the conclusions that they’ve reached from their analysis.

“The criteria for joint activity are that the parties intend to work together, at work is interdependent, rather than performed in parallel without need for interaction”.

In order to facilitate this there are some other things that people need to do including making their actions predictable to each other and rebuilding common ground when it deteriorates.

Additionally the authors discuss the idea of there being choreography in joint activity, and that there are different phases of the activity that are controlled by different signals an enhanced by coordination devices, all of which are used two keep the costs of coordination as low as possible.

It’s important to note that the basic compact is not just set and done but it’s something that needs to be continually sort of reinstated or renewed. If someone is not reinforcing that basic compact and investing in the things are helping coordination, then they cannot be said to be participating in the joint activity.

The basic compact can vary in how strongly it’s felt or upheld, it’s not the same for all people and situations. Take for example the high school football team, they’re probably quite likely to want to advance their shared goals and are willing to continually invest in it. Contrast that with an example the authors give of an international peacekeeping mission, who might have trouble even maintaining the basic compact all.

This is important because the stronger the basic compact is, the more people are investing in it and repairing common ground, the more coordination that becomes possible. Conversely the less strength the basic compact has and the less the common grounds being repaired, the less coordination possible.

It’s worth noting that the basic compact and establishing common ground does not require a team to have simultaneous physical presence. That is, the basic compact can be reinforced and joint activity can be achieved in distributed teams as well as physically co-located once an example of joint activity and the basic compact in a distributed team that is provided by the authors that I liked is when two people might agree to follow one when driving. Also when you’re driving on the highway you are in a way engaging in the joint compact or basic compactor to activity with a very large number of drivers. The violation of which becomes obvious almost any time you see someone do something like cut in front of you or slow down.

The authors further develop the convoy driving example with Alice and Bob at a party. If Bob doesn’t know the way home, he may wish to follow Alice as she knows the way and he can find his way from her area. But Alice can drive in a way that makes it possible, slowing down and watching out for Bob, or in a way that makes it difficult for him. This is further complicated if Alice and Bob didn’t speak directly, but a third-party arranged this.

If the way home has a lot of side streets, then perhaps Bob thinks that Alice doesn’t know her way or doesn’t know that she is supposed to lead Bob home. Then Bob may abandon the effort.

But without communicating that, she may then circle back to try to find. Alternatively, if Bob happens to make a wrong turn, Alice might decide that Bob found his way home. This shows, that organizing a joint activity through a non-participant can be especially difficult.

The requirements for effective coordination

The authors looked at all these different forms of coordination and came up with three main requirements must exist regardless of the domain:

  1. The team members have to be interpredictable
  2. They have to have sufficient common ground
  3. They have to be able to redirect each other


Each person in the group depends on having the ability to predict how others will act with some amount of accuracy. Additionally, each member also has a responsibility to ensure that their actions are some amount predictable as well. Predictability can include things like: having an accurate estimate of how long it will take for everyone to do their part, how much skill is required, or how difficult the action is.

Having some sort of shared script can help this because it of course allows each person to know at least somewhat from the outset what the expectations or and how others will act. This also protects from somewhat other team members being idle or still in having that still be meaningful because it may be clear that person is waiting for something or waiting for some event previously agreed this interpretability is also greatly enhanced when a team member can put themselves in the other shoes and see from their perspective.

Common Ground

Next, is common ground. Common ground refers to not just having activities in common their share interests like we might say in a conversational setting, but having a shared idea and perhaps a shared language or if insured procedures about how a given joint activity will take place. Typically the more common ground that is built between team members the more efficient and coded their communication can become. Conversely the less common ground that a team has established the higher the cost of coordination for them in having to explain in greater detail every communication. It’s also important to distinguish that common ground is not just replicating the same information each person’s head. It’s not just having two people have the exact same goals the exact same knowledge. Common ground is actually a process in which they communicate and repair mutual understanding.

“common ground is not a state of having the same knowledge, data, and goals. Rather, common ground refers to a process of communicating, testing, updating, tailoring, and repairing mutual understandings".

A high level of common ground is not always required depending on individual needs of the people and what it is they’re trying to accomplish. For example, 2 people making small talk don’t need a high level of common ground and can simply nod or just be looking at each other to confirm that they are both in the conversation and understand each other well. Joint activity is made up of joint actions. That is individual joint actions, often many, all add up to the overall joint activity. Where each joint action is changing the common ground as they proceed.

Common ground itself is made up of three categories:

  1. Initial common ground
  2. Public events so far
  3. The current state of the activity

_Initial common ground_is relevant knowledge and history that each person brings to the activity. This can include things like the conventions of their practice as well as the conventions of the team. The authors use the example of a surgical team, where the surgery is typically performed in a specific way but different hospitals have different surgical procedures and different surgical teams can have different procedures as well. It can also include what the individuals happen to know about each other prior to doing the work, such as training and ways of working.

_Public events so far_are what, if anything, an individual knows about the event that has already occurred. In incident response this could often happen to someone based on an incident communication channel. These sorts of things are important because they can influence what options are available or not available to the team. Again, the authors fall back on surgery saying that: once tissue is been cut it cannot be uncut or put back, so knowing this changes what options the team can choose moving forward.

The events that have happened so far can also create precedents in how a team communicates and what roles individuals take on, which is another thing that someone who is joining later may have to get up to speed on.

_The current state of the activity_is something that can further provide some information to help individuals predict what will be done next. It also helps communicate what forms of coordination will be most effective later on. The current state includes things like the physical work area and how its laid out. It’s important to remember though, that those things can signal different things to different people.

The authors also looked at what types of shared knowledge or beliefs or assumptions were most important and they came up with five:

  1. Roles and functions of each participant
  2. Routines the team is capable of executing
  3. Skills and competencies of each participant
  4. Goals each participant, including their commitment to the success of the activity
  5. “Stance” of each participant (How each person perceives and approaches the situation, including things like time pressure and competing goals)

Again, it’s important to note that common ground requires all or most of these things but that does not mean each person needs to know all of the same things and think in the same ways. Despite the extra time and effort needed to reconcile these differences: “such diversity of perspective may actually improve performance by requiring participants to negotiate and reconcile different pertinent understandings”.

Supporting Common Ground

Teams perform several activities in order to continue to support common ground the authors identified several (emphasis theirs):

  1. Structuring the_preparations_in order to establish initial calibration of content, and to establish routines for use during execution
  2. _Sustaining_common ground by inserting various clarifications and reminders, whether just to be sure of something or to give team members a chance to challenge assumptions
  3. _Updating_others about changes that occurred outside their view or when they were otherwise engaged
  4. _Monitoring_other team members to gauge whether common ground is being seriously compromised and is breaking down
  5. Detecting_anomalies_signaling a potential loss of common ground
  6. Repairing the loss of common ground

Even though there are things that can be done to improve and repair common ground it can never be perfect. This is why in that list there were some monitoring steps being taken. So that a misunderstanding or discrepancy can be caught before it turns into a greater problem.

Additionally, the authors make a point to clarify and I think this is an interesting thought, that common ground is what enables a team to work together to achieve something but that common ground is not a work output in its self. So a team may work together to restore service during an incident, and establishing repairing and enhancing, grandma helped them do so but the end of it that common ground is not output. Only having restored that service is.


As the situation evolves and priorities change, effective teams need to be able to signal to others to change course. This includes both giving direction and receiving direction. This may seem simple, but the authors describe it as being “central to the resilience of a team”.


  • Making your actions more predictable and/or observable to others can help coordination
  • Effective coordination_does not_require that everyone have the same thought process or knowledge
  • Teams whose members can adjust their action in response to others, or help others do the same are more effective.
  • Common ground requires more than just two people having the same training or skills
  • Common ground needs to be actively maintained

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Shift Changes, Updates, and the On-Call Architecture in Space Shuttle Mission Control →

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