Shaping high-performing teams

Photo by Perry Grone
Photo by Perry Grone

It’s quite simple: You lock motivated employees together, give them a goal and then it works on its own. They become a team and celebrate success together afterward. If only it were that simple. On the way to becoming a team, there are some pitfalls to overcome. After all, we are dealing with humans.

If you talk about the process of team building, you will very quickly come to the phase model according to Tuckman. Bruce Tuckman was an American psychologist who developed this model back in 1965. In 1977, together with Mary Ann Jensen, he added a fifth phase to the model.

The model is already well known as a standard for team development, but I would like to introduce it here again and explain how to support the phases.

Phase 1 Forming: In this phase, the team is put together and the members get to know each other. The leader plays an important role here, as he has usually put together the team and nobody knows their way around. All eyes are on him and he should announce what has to be done.

This time is very demanding for the leader because communication usually takes place in a star shape. In this phase, it is important to create clarity about upcoming tasks. For example, an overview of personality types (see chapter 3.1) helps to support the process of getting to know each other and to validate the distribution of tasks. In any case, it is important to use the motivation of the first stage well and to direct the initial disorientation in the right direction.

Special attention should also be paid to the external labels of the team. The right name, the clear mission or perhaps even an appropriate logo help to establish a sense of belonging. The design of this can perhaps be combined with a convivial evening. Alcohol has always been a good catalyst in this phase.

Phase 2 Storming: Now we are in the rumble. The differences between the team members surface and conflicts about the right approach emerge. Role distributions are determined and demarcation fights arise. Here the leader is called on to be moderator and arbiter, to convert the conflicts into productive results.

Especially calmer team members should be given special attention in this phase. They will not plunge into the open conflicts in the first line, but they also have their opinion. If they are not heard, then passive resistance grows here, which will later lead to complications.

Phase 3 Norming: Now the dust settles and the team finds itself. The team consolidates its rules and the distribution of tasks. Now a transition of responsibility is becoming more and more important, the team becomes independent. It sets its own rules regarding social interaction and goal achievement.

During this time, the leader withdraws even more to a supporting moderator role and transfers responsibility to the team. Sometimes it is also important in this phase to calibrate the exuberance on the team. Inspired by the progress so far, the team is in danger to take a too-large bite from the cake and overcommit.

In the Agile methodologies, there is an important term in this context: sustainable speed. The leader needs to adjust the speed of the team to the duration of the project. After all, you don’t run a marathon at sprint speed.

Phase 4 Performing: The team is in full bloom. Tasks are independently distributed and completed. The established rules are only marginally adapted – they have already become flesh and blood. The leader has done his job and is only needed in an emergency or when the progress report is due.

During this time, it is important to praise the team sufficiently. It is worthwhile to market the results of the team known beyond the organization and thus ensure that the team reaps the deserved fruits of recognition from other departments as well. Here you can show “parental pride”.

Phase 5 Adjourning: Everything has an end – at least every project. When dissolving the team, it is important to anchor what has been learned and experienced. Grown personal relationships, work results as best practices for other projects and once again the marketing of the project’s success. At the end of the project, as well as just before the project, one always remembers joyfully the common successes harvested during this phase.

If the members of a team go in different directions, hopefully the seeds can be used for new team plants and the success can be propagated.

So much for academic theory. However, I can confirm from 20 years of practice that this is exactly how it works in reality. I walked through these phases several times, but only later did I understand the mechanics behind them. If I had this model at hand much earlier, I would have been able to support the process more consciously.

This process is enormously important because it is one of the main levers for the success of projects. In an Agile environment, there is even a dedicated role for this: The Scrum Master. The Scrum Master essentially has the task of managing this process. It is measured by how quickly it brings the team into Phase 4.

The dilemma of this role is already described above: unlike other roles, you manage yourself out of the job. This is also one of the conflicts in understanding with classical project managers who want to lead the team over the entire duration of the project. Good managers have certainly always done this, but I know enough parents who struggle with it when the children fledge.

There is another important rule of thumb for teams: A team consists of a maximum of 8 people, then it breaks up into 2 sub-teams. This is due to the number of personal contacts. The synchronization effort between the team members simply becomes too big, different tasks and needs then come to the fore. This should be considered during the team composition. Sometimes the teams are bigger – but then you should think about sub-teams. Either according to different areas of responsibility or in stimulating competition.

What about you?

  • Have you ever brought a team to top performance?
  • Which process steps did you find most difficult?
  • Have you already observed the break-up of more than 8 members?
  • Did you accept help to get your teams to perform?

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