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HH 003 - Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Adjourning
“Quotability may be the key to success,” is what Bruce Tuckman said about the Stages of Group Development “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing” in his 1965 paper “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups.”
The first four stages, Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, arose as Tuckman synthesized findings from his literature review of 50ish studies on groups. In 1977, he had a follow up paper coauthored by Mary Ann C. Jensen in which they reviewed 20 more papers and added the final stage, Adjourning, to complete the model with, as Tuckman himself referred to as imperfect rhyming.
Stages of Group Development by Tuckman and Jensen, 1977:
Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Adjourning
For years as I’ve worked in software companies, I’ve heard Tuckman and Jensen’s stages or parts of them come up in passing conversation. I find that interesting since the thing is, Tuckman and Jensen did not study academic papers researching cross-functional software delivery teams.
Instead, they studied papers written about groups that were in a few different disciplines, existing for different durations. One of the primary disciplines was groups of people with a therapist in the room aka “group therapy.” The groups in these studies were together for about three plus months.
The other papers they reviewed were studies about HR training groups, otherwise known and abbreviated as T-groups that were together for 3 weeks to 6 months. These were groups of roughly 15-30 people coming together for a learning experience with a trainer.
And finally, Tuckman reviewed papers from a small sample of what he terms as “natural and laboratory groups.” These were “industrial groups and presidential advisory councils” coming together a few hours or maybe weeks to do “a job”. In more than one place in both the 1965 and 1977 papers, Tuckman suggests that his samples are not the best and that “further research is needed.”
In the 1977 paper, there is, to me, an exciting paragraph where the authors note that there is a problem with one of the studies. The problem is that in the study they added new people to the team prior to reaching the “final stage” in the model. If we unpack that we can see the belief that teams are problematic if they change their composition - in this case, if they grow.
I don’t know about you, but in the world of teams that I’ve been a part of for the past twenty plus years people join our teams all the time. It’s part of the natural evolutionary cycle of teams whether we like it or not. We build onboarding programs to support people joining our teams. It’s a thing. I call this the one by one pattern in my book Dynamic Reteaming. It’s part of the deal to change team compositions when you are at tech companies that are growing and scaling, or that are, these days, shrinking. But again, Tuckman had a different goal. He had the goal of writing conclusions based on reading research papers from therapy groups, HR training groups, and natural/laboratory groups from the 60s and 70s. Those are different from studying dynamic software teams or teams at growing or shrinking companies.
Don’t get me wrong. Even though Tuckman’s literature review did not include software teams, and the papers are about environments that appear to be far from the dynamic environments that many of us know and are part of, that doesn’t automatically imply that his synthesis is not valuable. I mean, have you ever heard someone reference the model when describing software teams, like, “oh, they’re in the storming phase,” or “they’re just forming now, give them some time.” I have. How many times have you heard people refer to your teams as “performing” or “high performing?” I hope that’s been common for you. I hope that’s been true for you all day long. If not, call me and I can help you.
And I know teams aren’t perfectly linear as the model implies. Maybe our teams storm more than once and then go through multiple attempts to norm or calibrate. That’s all fine. Teamwork can be messy. I surmise that circles and loops in models are more popular these days than the straight waterfall-ish lines of the 60s and 70s. The “waterfall paper” by Dr. Winston W. Royce is from 1970 by the way. And we can for sure talk for hours about what it means for a team to be performing, or high performing. But that’s for another time.
And I know that you might be able to tell me about other ways of slicing up the world of teams that you find more compelling or interesting than what Tuckman and Jensen offer here. But are those other models as catchy and memorable as forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning? Probably not.
The pragmatist in me offers the following conclusion. Tuckman and Jensen’s model is a frame of reference for when we’re talking about teams. Their quotable, marketing-case-study-worthy rhyming scheme of forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning is a linguistic referent that people use when trying to communicate about their teams. It’s a dialectical tool for shared meaning that does not require the precision of a surgeon.
Teams form.. yeah, teams storm and get into conflict.. yeah, teams work their issues out and agree on norms… yeah, teams perform…I sure hope so, teams adjourn or disband.. yeah. So that’s it. That’s good enough. Because we have products to build and customers to delight which is a better focus than spending more time here.
Thanks for reading my newsletter. Here are some of the ways I can help you or how we can work together:
Sign up for my cohort course on Dynamic Reteaming. This is a 3-day interactive cohort course via zoom. The first one is in April. Via large and small group discussion we’ll dive into the 5 patterns of Dynamic Reteaming and how you can use them to manage change in your org or deal with it when it arises.
If you would like me to coach your teams, or you, send me an email and we can book a discovery call.
The week of March 20 I’ll be in New Zealand at the Agile on the Beach event doing a keynote on Dynamic Reteaming without slides. It’ll be a fun, interactive time with lots of movement and liberating structures. I’m also offering a course on how to have coaching conversations.
In May I’m heading to Budapest for Craft and then to Chicago for GoToChicago.
Notes, References and Appreciations:
“Developmental Sequence in Small Groups” by Bruce W. Tuckman. In Psychological Bulletin, Volume 63, Number 6, Pages 384-99.
“Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited” by Bruce W. Tuckman and Mary Ann C. Jensen. In Group & Organization Studies. December 1977. 2(4), 419-427.
“Managing the Development of Large Software systems” by Dr. Winston W. Royce. Reprinted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. Proceedings, IEEE WESCON, August 1970, pages 1-9.
Dynamic Reteaming, Second Edition by Heidi Helfand. O’Reilly, 2020.
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