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“Winning team with trophy” by huntsusan

Getting Good at Forming and Storming

Great teams manage to move through the non-ideal team stages quickly

I am a big fan of the ever-popular four stages of team development, which was first published over 50 years ago (1965). The model describes 4 phases (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) which — in the words of the inventor Bruce Tuckman

are all necessary and inevitable for the team to grow, face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work, and deliver results.

Every team has to go through these stages when it is, well, formed. But the real challenge comes from having to go through the earlier phases regularly.

Every change to the team, like a new person joining affects the stage it is in. External factors, like the introduction of new company goals or a pandemic can also be a trigger.

Change is a given and it will impact the team, and its phase, sooner or later. Which is why:

We are setting ourselves up for failure if we try to keep the team in norming and performing at all times.

The team will fluctuate through earlier stages. If we are not accepting this we are harming more than helping. It might feel like we have failed, yes. But pretending nothing has changed will mask the underlying reasons only to then have it blow up later on. Worst case scenario we end up with a toxic team or folks are leaving.

Of course it is not ideal to have a well-oiled machine — think a speedy car going at 100 km/h — turn into a compact car with a learner driver at the wheel. And it is likely frustrating as well. So… there is only one way out: Figure out how to transform that compact into a speedster as quickly as possible.

That is exactly what great teams with an experienced and attuned leader can do. They take very little time to find their way back to norming and performing.

But how?

  1. Be aware. Aware not only about the concept of the four phases, but also which stage the team is in. This means tuning into the little things: How are members communicating with each other? What problems are being raised? Are folks more in isolated?
  2. Identify Changes. Before attempting to improve the situation, we first need to understand what changed. Is it something internal or external? Does it relate to the people or the team’s work? If we are unlucky, it might even be a combination of factors.
  3. Improve. Once we know what the situation is, we can work on getting back to norming and performing. For example, if a new team member has joined, it is good to have a round of social contracting. In case there is uncertainty about the team’s focus, get folks together to air opinions, and come up with a shared plan.

While each situation is different, there will be similarities and approaches that can be re-used. As always, practice makes perfect, and great teams — and their leaders — can move through the phases in weeks, not months (or potentially never).

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Tom Sommer

Tom Sommer

Writing about Leadership and Personal Development. Director of Engineering @ Redbubble.