How teams evolve: a systemic perspective
There are a number of models of team development, which provide perspectives on how teams evolve over time. Most commonly cited is Tuckman’s four stages of forming, storming, norming and performing. Less well known is the seven stage … And even less known is the concept of team performance cycles (Marks et al, 2001)
In Tuckman’s model, teams begin with little shared purpose, collaboration or process. In storming, they experiment and test relationships and ways of working. In norming, they develop agreed ways of working and mutually supportive relationships. In performing, they take on more of the characteristics of a true team – collaborative, making effective decisions and focused on collective goals. Tuckman subsequently added a fifth phase, adjourning, where the team disbands, having fulfilled its purpose. (Tuckman, 1977)
Drexler and Sibbet expand this to seven stages: orientation, trust building, goal clarification, commitment, implementation, high performance and renewal.
Marks et al indicate that team work occurs in cycles of goal-directed activity, divided into two distinctive phases: a transition phase, where teams engage in evaluation or planning activities and an action phase, where teams perform activities that directly contribute to accomplishing their goals accomplishment. Over time, they repeatedly cycle through these two phases.
The problem with all of these models is that they are basically linear and, in the case of the Tuckman and Drexler-Sibbet models, based on newly-formed teams. They also assume that one stage leads to another in a logical progression. In reality team evolution is far more complex than that. For example: a new team member can cause the team to revert to an earlier stage of development – for example, in recreating trust (and indeed, this may be an essential step for the team to assimilate the newcomer).
- A new team leader can radically change the culture and the collective purpose of the team, but their ability to do so may be constrained by the historical legacy of his or her predecessor. The longer-established the team, the more ingrained old habits tend to be
- They do not adequately take into account the issue of collective identity – how the team perceives itself in the context of its environment
- They do not encompass the influences of external agencies, such as stakeholders who may enlarge or cut budgets, or change their requirements of the team
- They do not define what is meant by high performance (so, a team may be delivering to the satisfaction of one set of stakeholders but to the detriment of another)
- The Drexler-Sibbet model includes a stage of renewal, to maintain high performance. But this assumes the team composition is relatively static. In practice, successful teams continue to thrive by reinventing themselves – which often means in essence emerging from a chrysalis of change into a new team with new membership and different purpose.
- In a complex, changing environment, goal setting may be an emergent process. (David et al, 2013)
A systemic approach to team evolution would address how the team develops in line with its environment. Evolution within the team is related to evolution of the context, in which it works.
A systemic framework of transitions might then involve:
- Initiation – where stakeholders and the team leader define the purpose and expectations of the team
- Gathering – selection of team members on the basis of what they can contribute to the purpose (becoming a group)
- Becoming a team – absorbing the purpose, developing the norms and procedures that will allow the team to deliver, building the relationships of trust that underpin collaborative endeavour
- Becoming a high performing team – engaging with each other and with stakeholders to enhance the processes, relationships and access to resources that will enable the team to achieve its potential
- Continuous reinvention – reacting to (and sometimes precipitating) change in its stakeholders’ needs, using the arrival of new members to stimulate rethinking, restructuring and the deepening of relationships
This model is anything but linear. Team purpose may be the most “fixed” element, but in a VUCA world, it is liable to evolve over the life of the team. Gathering is a continuous purpose of changing team membership to reflect changing needs, but also a matter of necessity, as people leave and must be replaced. Whenever this situation arises, it is an opportunity to reconsider the mix of skills and expertise the team currently requires. Becoming a team is not a one-off event. It requires continuous effort to absorb newcomers and to enhance collaboration. (For example, conflict arises in all teams and teamwork will fluctuate according to how externally induced change to roles, responsibilities and methods of working affect the balance of positive and negative conflict.) These issues are even more significant in high performing teams, because the balance between being high performing and mediocre is often very fine. (For a comparison, think of champion downhill skiers, where high performance may be measured in a fraction of one second!)
Continuous reinvention lies at the heart of the model, therefore, because standing still is not enough.
Team coaches typically come in to help groups that have either never become a team, or teams which have become stale. For the latter, the temptation is to try and fix a few, fairly obvious barriers (such as lack of trust). But entropy is the enemy of evolution – all successful teams decay unless they put continued effort into evolving. One of the greatest gifts a team coach can leave with a team is the habit of, at least once a year, working through the stages of this model, as if they were just coming together for the first time. Stakeholders, of course should be an integral part of this process. From this return to the cocoon, the next glorious butterfly may emerge!
© David Clutterbuck, 2019