Came across this in an issue of IEEE Computer today. It’s a simple conceptual model from the 1960s by a guy called Bruce Tuckman of the stages small groups go through; groups such as committees, work groups, and project teams. The basic stages seem obvious, but, as with many models of human behaviour, the value comes from their being made explicit such that they can be recognized, acknowledged, and facilitated appropriately.
Here’s what the original article says (my emphasis):
Groups initially concern themselves with orientation accomplished primarily through testing. Such testing serves to identify the boundaries of both interpersonal and task behaviors. Coincident with testing in the interpersonal realm is the establishment of dependency relationships with leaders, other group members, or pre‑existing standards. It may be said that orientation, testing and dependence constitute the group process of forming.
The second point in the sequence is characterized by conflict and polarization around interpersonal issues, with concomitant emotional responding in the task sphere. These behaviors serve as resistance to group influence and task requirements and may be labeled as storming.
Resistance is overcome in the third stage in which in-group feeling and cohesiveness develop, new standards evolve, and new roles are adopted. In the task realm, intimate, personal opinions are expressed. Thus, we have the stage of norming.
Finally, the group attains the fourth and final stage in which interpersonal structure becomes the tool of task activities. Roles become flexible and functional, and group energy is channeled into the task. Structural issues have been resolved, and structure can now become supportive of task performance. This stage can be labeled as performing.
So, basically, small groups go through the following phases:
- Forming – the group forms, and members break the ice and begin to get to know one another. Individuals develop the confidence necessary to function within the group.
- Storming – group members begin to assert themselves through conflict as social roles are negotiated. They act to maintain their own individuality as well as determine their status within the group.
- Norming – common vocabulary, assumptions, and goals are articulated, and the group begins to function together. Group identity forms.
- Performing – the group becomes productive, trust becomes firmly established, and group energy is channeled primarily into the task at hand.
I don’t know about you, but these stages certainly feel familiar. I don’t think it’s useful to claim that these are distinct and clear stages, however. Rather, I think they’re best thought of as overlapping phases describing a ‘natural’ progression. With that in mind, then, here’s a bunch of ways you could use this model:
Firstly, with a model at hand, it’s easy to see when behaviour deviates from a ‘normal’ pattern. This isn’t intrinsically bad, but, if unexplained, may be indicative of certain problems within a group.
Secondly, individuals and subgroups might not necessarily move through this progression at a uniform rate – if part of the group is still stuck storming, it makes it hard for the rest of the group to begin norming. In such situtations, a skilled group leader might be able to gently nudge such individuals by, for example, allowing them other outlets to express themselves.
Thirdly, it seems like these stages aren’t just what normally occurs, but also what needs to occur for a group to function. It’s probably important to be aware of this when forming expectations of a group’s performance.
Fourthly, it’s always nice to have a vocabulary to describe things like this, particular given that the elements of group behaviour are normally quite implicit.
Edit: Lastly, it’s interesting to think about the emotional conflicts and outbursts that sometimes occur and realize that they’re actually just part of the process rather than some intrinsically negative distraction.