High-Performance Teams are Long-lasting According to Tuckman

I’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about stages in teams development – forming, storming, norming and performing, so I jumped into figuring out (1) where this theory is coming from and (2) how valid it is today in connection to agile teams.

The originator of the theory is Bruce W. Tuckman, who wrote a study in 1965 – Developmental Sequence in Small Groups, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 63, No. 6, p.384-399 (with follow-up articles and studies (2001: Developmental Sequence in Small GroupsGroup Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, p. 66-80; 2010: Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited,  Group Facilitation: A Research & Applications Journal, p. 43-48).

According to Tuckman, there are four (later on five) natural stages that a group has to go through to become a high-performing entity.

Let’s see what the stages are:

  1. orientation / testing / dependence: forming
  2. conflict: storming
  3. group cohesion: norming
  4. functional role-relatedness: performing
Bruce W Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development

Tuckman suggests that more studies are needed, as the researcher bias is a factor that influences the final theory. But upon further revisions in 1977, re-published in 2001 and revisited in 2010, and the model proposed by him still stands. Further studies were done that reached the same conclusion.

Now, what are these stages about? 

  1. Forming refers at testing and dependence: the group members will test to find out what behaviours are acceptable in the group, figure out existing norms and behaviour boundaries. In relation to the task, orientation refers to identifying its ground rules and discovering the type of information they need to complete the task, but also orienting towards the leader (trainer) to find out more about the task (dependency).
  2. Storming: the group members are hostile towards each other in order to express their individuality and resist group formation. Interaction is uneven and common infighting happens.  At the same time, the members will react emotionally to the task and resist its demands, this representing the discrepancy between individual orientation and that of the task.
  3. Norming, development of group cohesion: group members accept the group and the individuality of fellow members, thus the group becomes an entity.  The group establishes new common norms to ensure the group existence; new roles are also adopted. Harmony is of importance and conflicts related to tasks are avoided.
  4. Performing: the group becomes a problem-solving instrument, directing itself and its members as objects, since the subjective relationship between members has already been established. This is the stage of solutions emerging, and constructive attempts at successful task completion. Roles become flexible and functional, and group energy is channeled into the task.
  5. Adjourning: or termination; this stage was added later on by Tuckman (1977).  This stage refers to the team breaking up after the task is completed and emotions that come with it, as this creates a minor crisis.

How is this useful and how does it relate to agile teams?

The core of agile working is a strong team, that gels well together and delivers their best work. The challenges come when you first build that team. Tuckman’s model helps you understand where your team is and adjust your coaching accordingly:

  1. Forming:
    • make sure the team is communicating, learning about each other, bonding
    • give the team as much information as needed to be able to achieve their objective
    • develop trust
    • help the team find its own structure
    • make sure everyone is heard, not only the most vocal ones
    • help the team build a common purpose
  2. Storming:
    • manage conflicts
    • facilitate open communication, transparency
    • make sure everyone is involved in the discussions, not only the ones that speak louder
    • build primary working rules or guidelines
    • include all ideas and opinions
    • continue helping the group finding their purpose
    • help the group define their identity (team name, working agreements, values, etc.)
  3. Norming:
    • facilitate decision-making through consensus and negotiation
    • make sure everyone is heard, and discussions are open and inclusive
    • (facilitate) build a commonly agreed process for the task they are doing
    • build on the working agreements and obtain a consensus on them
    • make sure feedback loops are in place (for internal and external stakeholders)
  4. Performing:
    • the team is delivering their best work, they work collaboratively and care about each other
    • make sure communication is open and inclusive
    • help the team find solutions to problems
    • remove impediments
    • coach
    • push for continuous improvement, looking for better ways to work
    • celebrate successes and recognise teams and individuals
  5. Adjourning:
    • manage emotions of a dismantled team
    • help the team stay together as long as possible.


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