Concept Attainment

Reaching a Shared Understanding

Concept Attainment - Reaching a Shared Understanding

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Develop a shared understanding.

"Concept Attainment" is a simple group learning technique that helps you achieve a consistent understanding of important concepts and ideas.

It is particularly powerful where team members' judgment plays a large role in how they respond or make decisions and where consistency is important across your teams. By discussing examples and individual attributes of the issue being discussed, you can help your team gain a deeper and unified understanding of the issues they face, so that they solve problems in a similar, effective way.

Examples of where this is useful are:

  • In a customer support team: helping understand service standards and service level definitions so that customers get a truly consistent, good service, whoever they talk to.
  • In a customer service team: defining "complaint escalation" so that important issues only are escalated to senior management.
  • In a sales team: understanding the company brand so that team members consistently "deliver the brand" as well as specific products to customers.
  • With wine tasters: defining "taste vocabulary" so that team members describe and grade wine consistently.

How to Use the Tool

Use the tool in small team meetings of up to, say, 8 people. Your role as the team leader is to introduce the concept or approach you want to explore, and guide people through a productive discussion, using the following steps:

1. Define the Concept

As team leader, bring to the team meeting well-thought-through, written definitions of the concept. Make sure that you collate any pre-existing definitions, such as those published in staff manuals, corporate communications and so on. Present the team with these as the starting point.

2. Explore the Concept

Within the team, discuss what the concept means and how it specifically applies to the team. Unravel specific aspects or elements of the concept to achieve a deeper understanding. For example, a team discussing the concept of "service excellence" may unravel elements such as timely response, prompt replacements, courteous calls, and tone of voice.

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As you go, encourage team members to explore elements in more detail, allowing details (such as tone of voice) to emerge as the discussion deepens. As team members become engaged with the detail, so their understanding will increase. This is especially important when discussing ideas in relation to team members' specific roles and behaviors.

3. Test the Concept Using Examples and "Non-Examples"

Ask team members for examples and also "non-examples" of the concept. A non-example is simply something outside of definition. For example, if you want to look at "escalation" in relation to customer complaints, ask the team for examples of complaints that must be escalated, and also ones that must not (these are the non-examples).

Notice how attributes change for different examples and non-examples. If there seem to be lots of exceptions and "special cases", dig deeper into the concept and expand the emerging definitions.

4. Review and Agree Revised Definitions

As the deeper understanding emerges, so will revised and more detailed definitions. Agree these with your team, and write them down. Amend any team-owned documents to reflect the team's new understanding.

5. Test Definitions in Practice

As the team moves forward, make sure that definitions are regularly revisited and updated to reflect what really happens.

Tip 1:

It is important that all team members participate and that the team achieves agreement. If team members do not "buy-in" to the final agreement, the team will not reach a shared understanding, and it may not apply the concept consistently.

Tip 2:

One of the team leader's roles is to draw attention to the concept's most important elements, and to make sure that these get sufficient attention.


Mike Brown leads the business service center for K-CO Inc, a telephone company providing business services and networks. He is frustrated to see that the number of customer complaints escalated to account managers has risen again. And yet the customer survey results published last week were excellent – suggesting that customers are happier than ever.

So Mike investigates the problem thoroughly over the next few days and he concludes that the problem is in fact internal. There have been two new members of the center's supervisory team and, although new supervisors are experienced and well trained, Mike has found that the supervisors are inconsistent in how they escalate complaints.

He decides to test out his theory at the next meeting of the service team supervisors. He holds an extended meeting of the 6 supervisors, and uses the "concept attainment" technique to explore the issue of escalation. As the team discussion evolves, team members offer examples of when they have escalated customer complaints. Very importantly, they also explore when they have not escalated (or should not have). They look at how various factors have affected their decision: types of complaint, types of customer, person calling, how the customers complained (by phone, email or letter).

As the discussion evolves, the team drafts new more detailed definitions to supplement the complaints procedure. Their shared understanding deepens, and the new team members report that they have increased confidence not to escalate certain types of complaint. And as next week's statistics show, the team is now more consistent than ever in dealing with customer complains, and more will be dealt with without the need for escalation.

Key Points

The concept attainment technique helps team members gain a deeper understanding of important concepts. By using examples, non-examples and exploring the attributes of the concept, the team can arrive at a team-owned definition that enables the concept to be applied consistently.