Anybody with project experience knows, that the result is always only as good as the team behind it. But no team is perfect. Just like people, groups are constantly developing. The success of a project is closely related to this process. The 5 phases of team development according to Tuckman are an excellent model for understanding how team dynamics influence your project work.
Project Team Development: The 5 phases according to TuckmanTimo Gerhardt, Monday 23 May 2022 | Reading time: 6 min.
US psychologist Bruce Tuckman conceived the first phase model for group development back in 1965. Although this is quite a long time ago, his findings are still relevant today. Especially in the age of New Work they are increasingly proving their worth.
Team leaders do well keeping these development phases in mind, as the performance of the project team correlates to the respective phases. To do so can unlock the enormous performance potential created by actively influencing the development of the team.
The forming phase represents the first coming together of a group. At this stage, there are usually few interpersonal relationships and the group lacks structure. Members behave cautiously, scanning each other and trying to find their place within the group. Accordingly, performance at this stage is relatively low.
In this first phase, the leader's task is to support the team members to overcome interpersonal barriers, establish communication and create initial structures.
Once the forming phase is complete and interpersonal barriers are overcome, some conflicts of interest among the team members surface. Team members with similar views form a bond, which can cause rifts in the team. This is an unpleasant, but at the same time enormously important phase. Coping with it is critical to the success of the project. The already low performance decreases significantly in this phase.
A well functioning conflict management is essential in this stage. The project manager or team lead should avoid escalation by steering discussion rationally. A quick transition to the next phase is desirable. However, this must be achieved by resolving the conflicts rather than by ignoring the problems.
Resolving the dissent from phase 2 marks the beginning of the norming phase. When dealing with conflicts rules and norms emerge. The team will use them as a policy for upcoming disagreements. The roles and responsibilities of the members are determined. Consequently, the increasing consensus enables collaboration within the group. Unity and a clear goal replace conflicting interests. This is the starting point for successful cooperation. The relatively low level of performance now experiences a take-off point.
To accelerate the norming process, the project manager should pay particular attention to internal communication and create opportunities for exchange. This helps building a regulatory framework fast, in which the team can operate during the project.
After these 3 initial phases, it is now time for the team to perform. The team will have reached a high level of commitment and can cooperate effectively and efficiently. Synergies are created. Normally, performance is highest in this phase and increases progressively. But if the project lasts longer, it can drop again, for example due to a decreasing innovative spirit. Rotation within the group or new stimuli through exchange with others can be useful to avoid such aging effects.
The directive for team leaders in this phase is to act in a goal-oriented manner. They should enable the team to flourish in a positive environment. In terms of achieving the goal, this is the most important phase.
Get your team into the performance phase as quickly as possible and keep them there until the project is complete!
Every project ends at some point and so does the team’s collaboration. The adjourning phase is often thought to be relatively unimportant, as the project should already be completed by this point. What is often overlooked is the opportunity to capture the lessons learned for upcoming projects. Although the performance typically decreases again, the team should review the project process at this point. In this way, any mistakes that occurred can be avoided in the future. Practices, that have proven useful, can in turn be established for future projects. Therefore, project documentation is an important part of project management.
In this phase, the project manager should once again actively create opportunities for communication and exchange to initiate feedback processes. In addition, he should ensure, that the dissolution does not begin under any circumstances before the project goal has been achieved.
The group development process described by Tuckman is usually not linear. Thus, there may be regressions throughout the project and some stages may be repeated. In some cases, phases may not be completed at all. Thus, projects may fail, because the performing phase is not reached.
Consequently, it is important to actively manage the development process of the project team. When applying Tuckman´s model to your project team, keep in mind, that each team is an individual and complex construct. This way you will achieve the best result possible, and the output of your team will exceed the sum of the individual capacities.