How Do Teams Really Evolve?

Have we moved beyond Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing?

If you do a Google search for “stages of team development”, you’ll find just one model. Tuckman’s 1965 model of teams Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.

Yes, Tuckman’s model was wonderful work, but is it true that nothing has really happened in this area since then?

The answer is no! Today, I’ll share some new exciting work on team development.

I won’t describe Tuckman’s model here, because there’s a good chance that you already know it.

I will, however, confess that I have harboured doubts about the usefulness of Tuckman’s model for years, and recently I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one.

Professor David Clutterbuck is the author of nearly 50 books and hundreds of articles on cutting-edge management themes, and one of the world’s top business coaches. Recently Professor Clutterbuck said about Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing model, that:

The concept and language of this description are neat, but don’t necessarily depict what actually happens. Such tidy, logical, clear cut phases don’t usually happen in the real world.”

I couldn’t agree more. After studying teams and working with them for decades, I have found that, in practice, these stages are very difficult to pick in the life of a real team.

If you can’t pick which phase you are in, how helpful is the model?

In-fact, Clutterbuck observes that the longer a team exists, they are likely to:

Be less willing to challenge group norms.Be less aware of the external world.Be more likely to bury relational conflict or, conversely, be in open warfare.Be more difficult for newcomers to fit into.

In other words, in his experience, most teams don’t develop at all!

What other work has been done on stages of team development since Tuckman?

Happily, more work has been done, and that work can be of great practical help to those who need to develop their teams. I’d like to briefly share two other models – including my own.

Neither of these models directly contradict Tuckman’s original model, but they could be more practically useful.

The first model of team development – Connie Gersick’s 5-stage model – describes the journey of team change as follows:

  1. ​A distinctive approach to the task, which emerges very early.
  2. ​A period of inertia, where nothing much about the team changes.
  3. ​Sudden transition, where the team drops old patterns and makes dramatic change.
  4. ​A second period of inertia, while they execute the plans made in the last phase.
  5. ​Final burst of activity where group made one last change in behaviour, just before deadlines.

As you can tell, the model draws our attention to the non-linear nature of growth. It portrays growth to not happen in easy to predict, proportional measures but rather in bursts  whose tenure are hard to predict and which are separated by periods of inertia.

The second model of team development centres around how teams talk, and a team’s journey toward becoming a purpose-orientated, collective decision-making unit. This is my own model which has emerged over both my doctoral research and two decades of working with teams.

There are two presuppositions to the model.

1. Teams do not necessarily develop. Some grow in capability and maturity, while some do not. A team’s growth will be reflective of their collective intention to grow, and their environment, which will support that growth, or not.

2. This model is a transcend and include model. That is, if the group does develop, they will continue with the early stage, while they take on characteristics of the later stages. 

Stage 1 – Manager-focused team

Manager Focused Team

As the diagram suggests, the manager remains central in the team, and the predominant dialogue about the work is between the manager and their direct reports in one on ones. Via the manager’s centrality, they become the primary conduit between team members. They find themselves often suggesting to one team member to connect with another by saying, “you should talk to xxxx about that, he/she has done some work on that very area”, because the manager is the only one seeing each person’s work.

This manager may be very hard working, and often is very committed to one-on-ones with their team members. This is admirable, and those one-on-ones are often helpful. The problem is – this approach is insufficient if the team works in a fast-changing or complex environment.

The harder the manager works to keep everyone focussed on their tasks via their one-on-one discussions, the more disconnected the team members become from each other. The consequence is that a team at this stage of development does not engage in collective problem identification and resolution. In-fact, it could be argued that this team is not really a team at all.

Not only that, team meetings for teams at this stage are usually less than satisfactory, especially for team members. The manager remains busy giving advice or providing coaching to each team member, as the meeting often consists of the manager dealing with each team member in turn. In other words, the meeting consists the manager engaging in one-on-ones with each of their team members, while the others watch.

What’s missing here? Collective problem solving.

Stage 2 – Manager-facilitated teamManager Facilitated Team

As the diagram suggests, the manager has learned to vacate the centrally-located position in order to facilitate useful exchanges between the team members themselves. In this stage, the manager supports the team to collectively identify key challenges or opportunities, and problem-solve as a team. And they do this on a week by week basis.

To achieve this stage of team development, the team has found consensus on two key foundational matters – team purpose, and team norms.

Team purpose. The team has identified a compelling, clear and consequential team purpose. This purpose statement is also broad enough to allow each team member to understand how their individual responsibilities can be located in the broad team purpose. In other words, the team has thought long and hard enough to identify the specific value-add this team can make, and articulated it in a straightforward way.

Team norms. The team has identified four to seven short statements describing how the team wants to relate to each other while they deliver to their purpose. These team norms describe how the team wants to relate to each other, as distinct what it wants to achieve.

In the context of the team purpose and team norms, the team can then work to resolve relevant and pressing problems. Teams at this stage of development have an active, vibrant team experience that overlays their individual accountabilities. They still do one-on-ones with their manager, but a good deal of what was covered in those one-on-ones is now dealt with far more efficiently and effectively in the team setting.

Stage 3 – Self-facilitated team

In my experience, most teams are in stage one or in transition to stage two. I would estimate that only 20 to 30% of teams are in stage two. Significantly less are in stage three.

In these teams the manager has now the space and capability to spend significant time outside the team clearing obstacles for its work, and building important relationships that will ultimately assist the team.

Even with the manager’s absence from time to time, the team is able to self-facilitate to enable the collective problem identification and resolution process to continue. A vibrant, purpose-orientated dialogue is sustained in the team, even though the manager now has more responsibilities outside of the team.  

Can you identify where your own team is across these three stages? Does your team engage in collective conversations on challenges that affect all or most of the team? Has your team identified what its collective purpose is? Do they know what value they add that no other team would be in a position to add?

 Remember, team development does not occur unless you deliberately plan to make it happen, and/or your environment has become more complex and therefore made it difficult to operate unless you do develop.