Article on training adaptive teams earns professors, postdoc national recognition

Training teams to be more adaptive in new situations can prevent disasters and help recover from crises much more efficiently and quickly. In 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 went down after striking a large flock of birds during its initial climb. With Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot, and his crew’s ability to adapt to the circumstance, the plane was successfully ditched in the Hudson River. One thing we learned from the crew’s emergency response is the importance in training adaptive teams to be resilient and flexible during crises and rare circumstances.  

In their award-winning article, “Training Adaptive Teams,” Nancy Cooke, professor of cognitive science and engineering at ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation, Jamie Gorman, psychology postdoc, and Polemnia Amazeen, associate professor of psychology at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, compared training methods for team coordination in an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) ground control simulator. The article received the Jerome H. Ely Human Factors Article Award at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society annual meeting in Las Vegas.

The experiment outlined in the article compared three training approaches and measured their effectiveness in terms of training adaptive teams. Cross-training, an established method in which team members are trained on the tasks and responsibilities of fellow team members, relies heavily on shared knowledge. Perturbation training is a new method in which team interactions are constrained to provide new coordination experiences during task acquisition. Both approaches and the more traditional procedural approach were assigned to 26 teams. The teams flew nine simulated UAV missions, and three were critical tests of the team’s ability to adapt to novel situations. The researchers measured team performance, response time to novel events and shared knowledge.

The results showed that perturbation-trained teams significantly outperformed teams in two out of three critical test missions, an outcome that was somewhat surprising according to Cooke.

“The prevalence of a cross-training approach in real-world applications leads a lot of people to think that it is the most effective way to train a highly adaptive team,” said Cooke. “However, perturbation training, which is done by throwing roadblocks into the process like system or communications breakdowns, teaches teams to be flexible and know what to do in very rare circumstances. That kind of resiliency is what leads to more adaptive teams.”

Perturbation training is amenable to simulation-based training, where trainers can manipulate distractions, unique scenarios and unforeseen breakdowns. Such interruptions provide interaction experiences that teams can transfer to real-world solutions.

“Adaptation is all about being able to bend and adjust in accordance with change,” said Cooke. “Responding to unknown circumstances and perturbations in a manipulated environment pushes teams to decide, plan, think and act under conditions they have never experienced. That’s where the real-world application comes in; perturbation training allows teams to be highly adaptable in any situation that comes their way.”