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From the desk of Nick Mills…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a great team. I recently wrote about some new research undertaken Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, who looked at a number of factors that predict the success of a given team. Her work is sophisticated stuff, useful once you had a team up and going and are dealing with the minutiae of a highly functioning group of individuals who have found ways of working well together. It’s worth revisiting how teams are made in the first place in order to smooth out the process of building a great one.

Way back in the 1960s, Bruce Tuckman came up with an explanatory model of team development that is still relevant today.

This model identifies four stages:

1. Forming

2. Storming

3. Norming

4. Performing

What begins as several individuals with unique backgrounds, experiences, and talents eventually becomes a high performing team in which the sum is greater than the parts.

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It’s important to note that these stages are not distinct but often merge into each other. Teams may move back and forth between these stages as new members join, new challenges emerge, or changes are introduced.

Forming

Forming is the initial stage of the team evolution process. This stage is usually characterised by uncertainty regarding team member roles and the operation of the team itself. Team members are getting to know one another, and are seeking to understand how other members think and act within the newly formed team environment. Interpersonal communication is affected to a large extent by the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that team members bring with them from the outside environment.

The forming stage is very much an experimental one that determines the interactive and dynamic nature of the team.

Storming

The second stage consists of establishing a clearer understanding of the team’s expected outcomes and the roles that team members will play in achieving outcomes. It’s likely that each person will have used different methods for solving problems previously. This is reflected in a predictable level of tension that develops as the various methods are discussed and the need for an agreed on decision becomes evident.

This stage of team evolution can be stormy if there is a wide disparity among team members’ experiences and attitudes. For example, some team members may have a more conservative approach that places a higher value on taking time to make the ‘correct’ decision. Other team members may be more inclined towards immediate action rather than extensive evaluation.

Norming

The norming stage of the team evolution process comes about as members become involved in working out the basic operational ground rules within the group. The storming stage would have identified many of the individual team member’s skills, knowledge and experience that can be applied to achieving the team’s outcomes. The strategies for achieving outcomes will now start to be formulated with an increase in the level of analytical thought applied to the task at hand.

Performing

Performing is the last stage in the evolution of a team towards becoming high performing. By this stage most of the initial problems and issues will have been overcome, through a process of negotiation by the team members involved. The teams expected outcomes, and strategies for achieving outcomes, will be clearly identified and understood, and team members will be actively involved in working together to achieve these outcomes.

If you keep this model in mind when you are looking at what’s going on in your teams, you might have a better idea of where you’re at in the process. It’s at this point that you can ‘tweak’ various factors identified by Gratton — focusing on community or culture as needed, emphasising communication and clarity, or modelling collaborative behaviour accordingly.