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Is Tuckman’s Forming Storming Norming and Performing fit for the future?

George Karseras, founder - Team Up

We urgently need a different approach to teaming. Perhaps part of the problem is our poor application of good science in the way we go about improving team work.

The harsh reality is that we are not great at developing effective teams in our organisations. Four out of five teams have been found to be mediocre at best and leaders themselves believe that only 10% of the teams in their organisation can be categorised as high performing. Unimpressive stuff. Especially given over the years we’ve invested billions in leadership development, building bridges and psychometric tests. At the same time, digital transformations, virtual working, growing individualism and increasing regulations are all conspiring to make teaming even more important and even tougher to get right. So what’s the answer?

My team have spent over five years researching the team development field and have found a litany of research which points to a set of principles and an updated, more contemporary and data driven approach to how we can build more effective teams. We have subjected all current models to scrutiny. None of them tick all the boxes, but here I’m going to pick on Tuckman’s model as it’s probably the most commonly used method of developing a team. Yes, it’s easy to remember, which is no mean feat in a complex world, and yes it describes several common phases that teams can go through – but as we’ll see, as a model for today, it just doesn’t stack up. Here’s why.

Reason 1 – It was never meant for the workplace
Tuckman based his model on data only collected from therapy groups. These were led by a therapist without a vested interest in the outputs of that group. Unlike the leaders in our organisations, therapists have no real skin in the game and nor do they operate as part of a socio-political system, which very much defines the workplace.   Even Tuckman himself admitted

‘This literature cannot be considered truly representative of small-group developmental processes’

Its origin alone explains why six separate studies have found the model doesn’t apply to work place teams.  Not all workplace teams storm before they norm. Some norm before they storm, some perform before they norm and some even storm after they perform. Whilst Tuckman’s flow works for some workplace teams, it’s obvious the flow lacks integrity in the workplace.

Reason 2 – It has become irrelevant for today’s teams
Tuckman did his research into his therapeutic groups in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s and published his theory in 1965. That means his model was constructed from team data collected ninety years ago. Teams operate very differently now. Today’s teams contain several generations with different values operating in a totally different context to the one that existed seventy years ago. Societally we are different too, we are more individualistic. Sociologists the world over point to a consistent correlation between GDP and societal individualism. Consequently we are now seeing more narcissism and psychopathy in the workplace.   A fair bit has changed in the way we now work too. Thanks to technology and digitalisation we now have much more complexity in the workplace. We have to move much quicker, be far more nimble, far more adaptable and far more resilient to cope with todays’ VUCA world.   A lot of new thinking has also emerged in the field. We have been introduced to the importance of: meaning and purpose; shared goals; authenticity; psychological safety, cognitive based swift trust and agile philosophies. Tuckman’s model makes no mention of any of these concepts. Consequently It misses out much that is now relevant and helpful to building effective teams.

Reason 3 -It doesn’t actually shift the dial
My biggest issue with Tuckman’s model is that It tells a story but it doesn’t tell you what to do. It doesn’t actually help leaders improve the way the way their teams work. To be fair to Tuckman, he recognised this. He was quite clear in admitting his model was never meant to be used to improve team working, only to describe a potential path that he found therapeutic teams went through, which he felt back in 1965, could also be applied to workplace teams.

So if Tuckman’s model was not constructed for the work place, is out of date and doesn’t actually help leaders improve their teams – why are we still using it? It gets over 50,000 hits a week on Google! With this obsession is it any wonder why our teams are anything other than mediocre? To build teams fit for today we have to be far less lazy, much more discerning, apply better scientific thinking and be more rigorous in how we apply our considerable knowledge.

Is there a sequence that actually works though? Our research tells us there is a valid sequence of three stages we can confidently go through to effectively build today’s teams.

Step 1 – Get the Team on the Same Page
Forming makes eminent sense, but Tuckman didn’t cover half of it.  For a start forming actually includes norming, the agreement to work in a certain way, with certain ground rules and to honour certain principles. Agreeing our target norms is part of the process of quickly establishing same page trust – a form of cognitive based trust that can be acquired much quicker than emotional based trust or the trust we accrue with someone because they are kind and supportive of us. The extreme teams found in the military or emergency services get this spot on. They don’t care whether the helicopter pilot is a kind person. They just want to be sure they can do their job and are on the same page when it comes to the mission and the plan. Extreme teams assume trust but they also rapidly establish commonality of purpose, goals, roles, plans and feedback mechanisms. Let’s face it today’s teams are increasingly becoming more extreme. Digitalisation means VUCA working. So contrary to what other well -known team building models proclaim, getting on the same page rather than building vulnerability based trust is actually the place to start building the high performing modern workplace team.

Step 2 – Build Psychological Safety
At about the same time Tuckman published his work, Edgar Schein was writing his seminal culture book, Organisational Culture. In it he coined the term ‘psychological safety’ and how it enables workers to learn new ways of thinking. Ed was way ahead of his time. Several decades later Amy Edmondson took up the term and investigated it and found psychological safety was as much a group held phenomena as an individual one. Amy’s research also highlighted the correlation between psychological safety and team: learning; creativity; resilience; adaptability and ultimately better team performance. As a result psychological safety is now front and centre of developing today’s effective team.  Yet Tuckman by passed it completely. A deep dive into the research reveals psychological safety is boosted when teams are on the same page and share common mental models. Developmental step 2 then is for the team leader to build psychological safety in the team.

Step 3 – Stretch out of Comfort Zones to Collaborate
The research tells us that with psychological safety the team is more able to have robust conversations defined by constructive rather than destructive tension. Team members are also more likely to work autonomously, experiment and adapt. Each of these in turn predict superior team performance.  Psychological safety is essential but not sufficient for these to materialise though. The team has to bring courage and talent to bear. Such skills have to be cultivated and encouraged for superior collaboration to materialise.  So we now have a third stage, the team develops the skills and confidence to be ‘strong’ and to stretch out of comfort zones to enable it to be truly collaborative.

So instead of pointing your leaders towards a 70 year old model designed for therapeutic teams, I would instead point them to the data, the science and the reality of today and encourage them to follow the principles and practices behind the sequence I’ve just set out. Perhaps then we may have a chance of seeing our teams actually work much better together.  In this turbulent, complex and fast moving world, they need all the help they can get.

By George Karseras, is the author of a new book Build Better Teams: creating winning teams in the digital age

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