Matching the components of team performance to Tuckman’s four development stages
From forming to performing (and adjourning)
Many managers and coaches will be familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s four stages of team development, defined in 1965: forming, storming, norming and performing. In 1977, he added a fifth stage, adjourning, to describe what happens when teams disband.
Based on extensive research of the research available to him at the time, Tuckman found that all teams progress through these predictable stages of development, unless they get stuck – or de-rail – at some point in the process.
Act appropriately for the stage that the team is in
Our task as leaders of these teams, or coaches to them, is to recognise which stage the team is currently experiencing and then act appropriately. Appropriate action means knowing which components of team performance to work on and what we may need to watch out for and manage – the inherent risks and pitfalls of that stage.
Our diagram shows seven of the components of performance which, based on my experience of working with hundreds of teams in different industries and countries, very typically arise. My colleagues Max Isaac and Anton McBurnie wrote eloquently about this in their 2015 book, “Close the Interaction Gap.”
Around these seven components, there’s the context of how the team works, its values, purpose, mission and story: what it stands for, what it exists to do, where it is going and how it came into being.
For well-formed teams who have advanced through Tuckman’s stages, this context is experienced and internalised by all the team members and they understand how it relates to the wider purpose and mission of the organisation within which it sits.
As an aside, in my experience of working with global supply chain collaborations and outsourced partnerships, much of this is also true for cross-organisation working – with some additional and unique challenges (maybe the subject of a future article!).
Where to start?
Newly-created teams usually have an implied purpose, but it may not be understood the same way by everyone. So in the Forming stage, work on clarity of purpose and mission. Address the team’s story and values. Establish ground rules for how they want to work together.
Teams commonly confuse their team’s purpose and mission with those of the organisation as a whole. Ask them what their distinctive contribution to that purpose and mission will be. We sometimes ask: “what would cease to happen if this team didn’t exist?” It can take a while to get to a convincing answer. Be cautious of anything that feels too safe or generic – the team needs to identify a context that is uniquely its own.
Embedding the four contextual elements - values, purpose, mission and story – provides a touchstone as the team progresses through the later stages of development. You can come back to these, check if you’re still on track and that the way these were articulated at the outset are still serving the team well.
Team members may also have a limited view of each other’s abilities and experience. Even if some participants have worked together in the past, they can have formed opinions about each other that are out-dated or irrelevant. So creating an awareness of, and language around, individual and team strengths is valuable at this stage. In my experience, Belbin Team Roles is purpose-designed and highly credible for this task. Some organisations have a preference for other tools – the important task, however achieved, is to build awareness.
Watch out for typecasting and labelling at this stage – “the quiet one”, “the technical one,” the pushy one.” Encourage an understanding of behavioural flexibility as well as a respect for individual strengths. Watch out for potential gaps or imbalances – I find that Belbin again provides a useful shorthand for discussing team composition and dynamics, and figuring out how to handle these.
Encourage less outspoken, more introverted team members to spend time one-on-one with other people in the team. It can be harder to get to know them and therefore their contributions may be overlooked. Their more reflective nature, if recognised and managed, may bring insights of astounding value to the future performance of the team.
The gathering storm
In Tuckman’s words, “intragroup conflict” becomes a feature as teams move into the second, Storming, stage of development.
Rather than reach for the hard hat, address the conflicts. Create a climate where there is honest and constructive handling of different views. Ensure that all the data is available to the team and that nobody is withholding or dismissing alternative views. This is the time for the team to create effective, robust and collaborative decision-making processes.
Alongside this, spend time working on inclusive behaviours, mutual respect and trust. Encourage both advocacy and enquiry. Ask more dominant team members to hold back a little and listen more; and more timid ones to come forward and advocate for their point of view.
Watch out for personal agendas at this time. Ensure that if these arise, the team looks back to its “reason why” – the purpose, values, mission and story.
With patience, the storm will pass.
The Norming stage can feel like an eerie contrast to its predecessor – from choppy seas to a becalmed ocean. Tuckman describes this stage as being about the “development of group cohesion.”
Work on productivity. This is the time to get good processes in place. Review and set up effective and efficient meetings, to serve the purpose and mission of the team. Use this period to plan and organise time and resources in an effective way. Play to the strengths, interests and development areas of all of the team members.
Watch out for over-politeness and the emergence of “group think.” If the team slips towards always wanting a consensus, and occupying the middle ground on every important issue, then increase challenge. Ask them to consider who is really best placed to decide on this. Does everyone need to be involved? Who has a counter opinion that needs to be listened to?
This can also be a point where unhealthy norms creep in. “Good enough” can replace performance-orientation. Team members can be let off the hook on matters that are critical around values, mission and purpose. If the team’s statements about what matters become “bland, toothless or just plain dishonest” – as leadership expert Patrick Lencioni put it in a famous Harvard Business Review article – then you will need to call this out robustly.
High performing teams
All teams want to progress to the high point of “performing” – achieving the standard described by Bruce Tuckman for this fourth stage.
High performing teams use their resources well. They are focused on mission and understand purpose. They know where they have come from and are honest about their values. They refuse to see “people-oriented” and “results-oriented” as a trade-off: in the high-performing team, these enable each other.
For the leader or coach of a team at this stage, optimisation is the name of the game. The team has mastered the fundamentals. It now needs to stay good and get even better. Work on peer feedback – openness about how team members contribute, how they interact and how this helps or hinders the work of the team. Ensure that team members request and offer help to continually improve. Build this into the day-to-day functioning of the team, rather than reserving it for the annual off-site or performance review.
Watch out for stagnation. Great teams know they can always improve, there is no room for hubris. Check whether the mission has been served. If not, what still remains to do? If so, is it time for the team to adjourn (disband) - or regroup and identify its next mission?
Paradoxically, teams that are performing at a high level often present unintended barriers to entry. When new team members move in, re-address the basics. Do they know what’s required to perform in this team – how things are done around here - and what the team is all about? Does the team understand that person’s team roles as well as their technical strengths? Does he or she understand what each of their new team-mates is capable of?
In fact, whenever a team member joins or leaves, you have a new team. It’s time then to take a look back at the performance components associated with all four Tuckman stages – adjust accordingly - and release the power of the team once more.