High-performing team don’t just happen. While the structures of agile frameworks and the principles of the Agile Manifesto help (a lot), the human-interaction component of a team and organization is wide and deep. People often ask me how they can tell if a team is progressing toward a high-performing state (if they are jelling well) and how to determine the sort of help needed to move teams forward. Tuckman’s model of team development offers one way to explore these questions with agile teams.

Tuckman Model of Team Development

Many models of human interaction have been proposed by sociologists. Each have adherents and detractors, strengths and weaknesses. I like to learn and use these models not as hard rules but as paths to think about improvement or change. Remember:

Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful. — George E. P. Box

Bruce Tuckman introduced his theory called “Tuckman’s Stages” in 1965. It is actually fairly well known in the business world though many do not know the source. Most know it by the names of the four phases of development that Tuckman originally proposed: Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing. The goal, of course, is to become Performing, working well together in a fluid way.

The descriptions of each phase help us get a feel for the team dynamic at any point and time. Let me elaborate what these phases might look like in a working agile team. Think of these as things you might see and hear from teams in each phase.

Forming

  • Everyone is polite to each other.
  • Each person concentrates on their “own” tasks.
  • Comments for improvement are phrased in safe “we” and “maybe” language.
  • “I do my part. I hope you do yours.”
  • “We have no differences.”

Continuous Improvement Tuckman Stages Forming

Storming

  • People form small, amorphous sub-cliques in the hall or at lunch to talk about a team member who is not present.
  • People point out who is letting the team down, typically not directly to that person at first.
  • Comments become direct and disagreements grow stronger.
  • “I’m doing my part. Why aren’t you doing yours?”
  • “I hate your differences.”

Continuous Improvement Tuckman Stages Storming

Norming

  • Team members request specific things of each other.
  • People cooperate and coordinate explicitly as needed.
  • Comments are about getting help to get stuff done.
  • “We are doing the work. Thanks for the help.”
  • “We work through our differences.”

Continuous Improvement Tuckman Stages Norming

Performing

  • Team members know each other’s weaknesses and fill in the gaps for each other without discussion.
  • People call each other out and willingly give account for their successes and failings.
  • Comments are about the work and getting it done.
  • “We are awesome. Let’s do more stuff!”
  • “Our differences make us stronger.”

Continuous Improvement Tuckman Stages Performing

Continuous Improvement with Tuckman

In my experience most teams get stuck in a Forming-Storming cycle. There are many possible reasons for this, such as:

  • Members are swapped in and out, causing resets back to Forming.
  • Management keeps suppressing getting through the storming phase. They decide, personally or by company culture, that “conflict is bad” so they step in too soon, smoothing things over so they never resolve.
  • The team members themselves are uncomfortable with conflict and the combination of strength and vulnerability productive conflict requires.

Performing teams are rare because getting through Storming is hard! Also please keep in mind that these stages are not necessarily a linear progression. Even a Performing team will cycle to Storming or Forming in different circumstances and at different times. The goal is to use this structure as a way to reflect on what may need to change for improvements to be realized, to get back and stay in Performing most of the time.

As a practitioner seeking improvement, look for behaviors that indicate a throttling of deep communication. Whether you accept the “Tuckman Stages” as relevant or not, they can be useful to help find places where more trust is needed.

What resources have you seen that are helpful to getting teams to Performing, where the work really works?