What to Expect When You're Developing a Team

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”         -- Leo Tolstoy

There are many ways a team can go wrong, but there seems to be a consistent pattern of teams that reach their full potential and become far more than the sum of their parts.  There are several frameworks and models describing this path, but the one that is both easiest to understand and most widely known (not coincidentally) is the Tuckman model.  

Tuckman Model of Team Development

The Tuckman model, originally published in 1965 and updated in 1977 to include a final, non-rhyming phase, has these key phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning.  The idea is that teams go through different stages of development, sometimes stagnating at one or another, and these phases are an inherent part of a team learning how to work together and fully capitalize on everyone's strengths.  

Forming

The first stage is where the team is coming together, and the individuals involved are starting to learn about each other, the goals, and what's expected.  I think of this as the "excessive politeness" stage, because people are often very careful as they try to learn where the boundaries are and what each person's "deal" is.  

This is also the stage where many team leaders try to circumvent future issues by setting ground rules, defining roles and objectives, and other things they think will head off potential conflict.  These are not bad ideas, but they will not prevent all conflict, and just because everyone politely agrees to them at this stage doesn't mean they will hold once the going gets tough.

Storming

This stage is not necessarily as chaotic and violent as its name implies, but it is definitely not the most comfortable phase of the process.  As the team starts to work together, hidden assumptions and agendas (which were often hidden even to the person who holds them) will inevitably be brought to the surface.  This may show up as minor friction or a full-out confrontation, depending on the pressure of the situation, the gap between perspectives, and the personalities involved.  

Here's what you need to know about this stage: you cannot avoid friction within the team if you want to get to a point where the team is performing at maximum potential.  This friction helps surface things that need to be made explicit and addressed, both for the team to function well and also for members of the team to trust each other enough to do their best work.  

If you try to preemptively squash the first signs of disagreement, you will either push the team backward to stage one where no one says what they're really thinking and doesn't take any risks, or you will set the stage for much more difficult conflict down the road when the things that didn't get discussed come to a head.  

It's possible that your team doesn't need to perform at maximum potential.  Maybe you're just planning the company holiday party, and excessive politeness is okay.  Not every team has to go through the storming phase, but it's important to know that you cannot get to the fourth phase without successfully making it through the Storming phase, possibly more than once.  It's not a reflection on you as the team leader or on the team members as individuals.  By helping the team constructively discuss and address the issues, you can help accelerate their progress to the third phase.

Norming

The Norming stage is where the team establishes, both implicitly and explicitly, how they will work together, what everyone's role is, and what's most important.  Each person decides how much to trust other members of the team, and how much they want to take initiative themselves based on that.  

This stage may also involve returning to some of the decisions made in the Forming stage, now that more information is available and people have more context.  That's not a bad thing.  The more the team's stated goals, objectives, roles, rules, etc., reflect the team's true reality, the more likely it is that the team will operate in alignment with them.  

Having written "rules of engagement" or operating principles can help the team to hold everyone accountable and quickly address issues.  For example, if the implicit ideas of when a meeting really starts is codified as "We start at the scheduled time, even if not everyone is here. Latecomers are responsible for getting any material they missed," team members know that showing up late has specific consequences and those who are on time are less frustrated.

Performing

The Performing stage is where a team really hits its stride.  Each member of the team has a clear idea of what their role is, and they also know what to expect from the other members of the team.  When unexpected obstacles or challenges arise, the team is able to quickly adapt.  Sports teams who have played together for a long time show this very visibly.   It sometimes seems like the players have an invisible "spider sense" of where their teammates are on the field and pass the ball almost without looking.  High performing work teams are similar in their ability to pass work, questions, or issues off to each other without hesitation or difficulty.  

This level of trust cannot be achieved overnight, and it also is unlikely to be achieved without at least some Storming having taken place earlier in the process.  The process of getting to this level can be accelerated, but it cannot be truncated.  

The Performing stage is something to aspire to, but it's important to recognize that it brings its own challenges as well.  Groups that are operating at this level can sometimes become prone to groupthink and may be inclined to work around issues rather than go back to the Storming stage to solve them.  

The cohesiveness of the team can make it challenging for outsiders, whether a new employee or another team in the organization, to relate to and work with.  It's also important to recognize that changing the context of the team, whether it's the goals, the resources available (like the timeline or budget), or adding new team members, changes the team itself and may cause the team to step backward a bit and needs to be factored in to your planning.  

Adjourning

The Adjourning stage is where the team completes its stated objective and either dissolves or reforms for a different purpose, which may involve changing the makeup of the team.  This stage is very clear on project teams, but with intact work teams, it's more of a return back to the Forming stage as team members leave or join the team along the way.  The "objective" of the accounting team is never really complete, so there is not a clear adjournment.

How to guide your team through the stages

The most important thing to understand about this model is that for your team to become a high-performing, well-oiled machine, you have to go through the initial phases first.  You cannot jump straight to high performance and skip the storming stage, no matter how amazing and wonderful the individuals on the team are.  This will hopefully bring a sense of relief.  Conflict and friction on your team isn't a reflection of your leadership or of character flaws of the people involved - this is an inevitable part of the process.  What is *not* inevitable, though, is getting out of the conflict phase, and that's where your role as manager becomes important.


Tips for the Forming stage:

  • Encourage members of the team to get to know each other (and facilitate their doing so).
  • You can model this by getting to know each individual yourself, and help them make connections.  This will help build the trust that is necessary for the kinds of difficult conversations they will need to have when friction inevitably occurs.


Tips for the Storming stage:

  • Treat the issues that come up as normal parts of the process rather than trying to smooth things over as quickly as possible.  
  • Whenever you see signs in body language or tone that indicate that something isn't being said, find a way to ask about it in a nonthreatening way.  The key to getting past this stage is making the implicit explicit, and then coming to agreement about how to move forward.  
  • Take the time to have the necessary conversations, even though you will feel like you can't.  
  • Model the behavior you want to see from your team by stating your assumptions and opening the floor for discussion or disagreement.  
  • If possible, prompt the Storming stage by giving the team a small objective that will require them to work together.  While it would be nice to try and surface everything ahead of time, the best way to find out what people don't even realize they are thinking is to get them to apply that thinking.  If it's a project team, try to create a quick deliverable that will move the project forward but will have to be completed well before the main project deadline.  If it's an intact work team, something like working together to develop a process improvement plan or define the team's mission might help surface things early.


Tips for the Norming stage:

  • Identify things that might be helpful to actually write down.  If the team is particularly passionate about certain ways of doing things, perhaps because of major conflict that they went through earlier, document those items as operating principles or ground rules, and post them where everyone can see them regularly.  (If you don't have dedicated team space, including the items as a standard template for all meeting agendas can be an easy way to incorporate this.)  This has the benefit of frequent reinforcement as well as making it easier for new members of the team to understand how things work.  It may seem silly or even patronizing to put down on paper "Meetings start and end on time" or  "e-mails need to be acknowledged within 1 business day even if the request isn't complete," but it will help the team to not waste time wondering and/or being frustrated with each other.
  • Continue to provide a safe space for disagreement and model the kind of behavior you want to see from the team.


Tips for the Performing stage:

  • To avoid groupthink,  ask team members to come up with ideas or solutions on their own before coming together as a team to discuss.  Use questions to head off premature consensus: why might this plan not work?  what's the worst that could happen?  what's the best that could happen?  what is a completely different way we could approach this?  what would our competitors do about this?
  • Carefully consider major changes to the team's structure, makeup, goals, budget, etc., and recognize that the team will probably regress a little as it tries to adapt to the changes.  Help the team to understand that this is a normal part of the process and (hopefully!) temporary.


The Tuckman model can help you anticipate and manage your team's development.  There will still be surprises, of course, but knowing that this process is normal can help take away some of the stress for both you and your team as you navigate through it.

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