Understanding the Tuckman and the Drexler-Sibbet models of team development—and how to help your team move through necessary changes
I looked around the room. Various factions sat apart and determinedly avoided eye contact with each other. The whole group glowered with distrust. Somehow, in a matter of days, I would have to take this bunch of misfits and develop them into a team. Success was critical. We were about to deploy on a military operation where, if we could not work together, we faced not only the failure of our mission but also our own physical wellbeing.
I am sure you can empathise. Whether you are a leader or have been a member of a newly formed team, I am sure you can recall similar scenes. Experience tells us that a bunch of people is not a team. It is just that, a group of random individuals. But we also know that teams are vitally important. They help us achieve what we could not do alone. So, how does a group of individuals develop into a team and how can we help manage that process?
Research has shown that a group must progress through certain development stages to become a high-performing team. A leader is responsible for managing this process, but it is one that affects us all, no matter our role.
The process of development is also continual. Our situation changes, as do the challenges we face. The people in our teams come and go. Sometimes things just seem to go wrong, and a team becomes dysfunctional. Therefore, team performance needs continual management.
We are all responsible for this management, to some degree, as we are all members of teams. That could be a work team, sports squad, music band, or just your family. Structures, locations, and purposes of groupings may vary, but they are still teams if they share a common goal. That is what defines a team: people with varying roles but a common purpose.
Whether we are officially leading that group we can make an important contribution to team development. And that is not just in playing our team role effectively. Through understanding team development, we can all help our teams become more effective.
I started off my career as a Bomb Disposal Officer in the Army, working in situations where working together as a team was potentially a life or death matter. Creating and maintaining high-performing teams really mattered.
Since then, as a senior manager, then consultant and leadership coach, I have worked within and alongside organisations in the commercial, governmental, and voluntary sectors. In each role, I have equipped teams with the skills they need to be more effective in working together and managed the development of the team as well as the roles of the individuals within that team. I will share some specific examples of these as we progress.
Team building is not reliant on away days and fun activities. These things are great but are not the foundation of team development. You can build a successful team in the harshest of environments if you understand the fundamentals of team roles and development.
A well-functioning team is dependent upon good leadership. If a team is failing in some way, then the manager must shoulder the bulk of the blame and take responsibility for finding a solution. But that does not let team members off the hook. Any individual can make things better (and they certainly can make things worse) for the rest of the team at any stage in its development.
So, what are the stages of team development?
A group needs to evolve through certain steps to become an effective team. The most well-known (and memorable) theoretical model of this development process is the Tuckman Model.
Bruce Tuckman did research that demonstrated that every team goes through various stages. He first identified four stages and then, upon further research, amended this to five stages of team development.
The five stages of team development:
A manager can do things to speed the process through these steps to the performing stage. It is especially important to get through the painful storming phase, but you cannot completely short circuit the system to get straight to performance. There has to be some pain to get to the gain.
Going back to the story I started with. As the group sat in that room on the first day, we were in the forming stage. Fortunately, we had a clear mission statement, and I knew we had lots of quality people. But given the dark-cloudy looks I was getting, I knew that the storming stage would soon be upon us.
Therefore, right from the start, I forced the issue of integration. I immediately restructured the group into smaller cross-functional teams that broke down the various cliques. They would have to learn together and learn to rely on one another from the start. The storming phase could commence — as people worked out their exact roles, preferences, and approaches — and the intense work gave them focus. The enemy was now the challenge rather than other team members.
If these smaller teams still struggled it was easier to identify the problem. Team dynamics and individual characteristics were easy to identify. In a couple of cases, I moved people around until we reached the norming phase, where cooperation among the team has developed.
I would love to say we were in the performing stage before we deployed but that would not be strictly true. We finished our training and were able to operate, but it was some time into the task before I would have called us a high-performing team. We had been effective to a degree until that point, but there was a moment where we got into a flow. We were not just getting work done — we were being creative, teams worked fluidly and independently, and results were exponential. This was high performance.
Sadly, all things come to an end. At the end of our tour of duty we handed over to another team and we went into the adjourning stage. We celebrated our success, shared our experience, and went off to join other teams.
It is useful to know these steps because it helps, particularly as the leader, to identify what stage of development your team is at. But just knowing which stage does not necessarily equip us to manage the team progression.
Being properly equipped is often down to knowing the right questions to ask. As a leader, I am constantly asking questions of myself, my situation, and my team. Therefore, I have found another theoretical process, the Drexler-Sibbet model of Team Performance, a really helpful complement to the Tuckman model.
The Drexler-Sibbet model poses a set of questions that a team needs to work through to progress through each level of performance. In this model, there are seven (rather than five) stages of progression. The stages and questions are as follows:
- Orientation: Why am I here?
- Trust Building: Who are you?
- Goal Clarification: What are we doing?
- Commitment: How will we do it?
- Implementation: Who does what, when, where?
- High Performance: Wow!
- Renewal: Why continue?
Let’s use another example to highlight the different stages and questions. Another very different and yet equally challenging management role I had was leading a large group of volunteers for a non-profit organisation. I did not have any of the levers of military rank, money, or contract to make people work together or at all.
Orientation: Why am I here?
This question needed to be answered to even recruit volunteers. The good news is that most people want to make a difference. What a good leader does is cast vision and link people’s values to that purpose.
My team was responsible for production: the setting up and running of large events. There were plenty of people supporting the organisation. My challenge was to link those individuals who enjoyed that sort of physical work and show them that they could contribute to achieving the overall mission by serving on my team.
Trust Building: Who are you?
Trust is the foundation of any relationship. The way to kickstart any relationship is by quickly building rapport. People do start to get to know each other as they work together, but this is where I find creating opportunities to socialise really fast-forward this stage.
These can be as simple as water-cooler moments or coffee breaks where people can chat. For my team, we found that in what was a long hard day of work, eating together at lunch really helped team building and fostering inter-team relationships.
Goal Clarification: What are we doing?
The next step is to turn the vision into a tangible mission or goal. A leader’s responsibility is to articulate this end-state or success criteria.
With my production team, the mission was to set up, manage, and then set down all the equipment in order to enable a successful event. The events supported the overall purpose of the organisation, so, in this way, I could link the what to the why.
Commitment: How will we do it?
Then you need to work out how to achieve the mission. In other words, you need a plan to break down the overall goal into smaller tasks and activities.
In my case, we systematically took each bit of equipment we needed to set up and worked out an overall sequence (effectively a project programme), then worked out an efficient process for each individual task. The team played a significant role in this last part. They used their creativity and experience to find the best ways to do things; I then captured and managed the activities.
Implementation: Who does what, when, where?
This question of who links the individuals to the plan. Answering the who question is about delegating tasks and roles according to skill, preference, and experience. For working out roles within a team I have found the Belbin Team Roles model the most useful and comprehensive.
As my team grew, the crew leaders took on more of this responsibility of working out the who. They knew the plan, and they knew their people best. They also knew how to take on new recruits and train them up.
High Performance: Wow!
The only part of this model that I dislike is the ‘wow’ instead of a question for performing teams. It can give the impression that once you get there all you need to do is just exclaim “wow!” and watch the magic happen.
But in my experience, what great teams do that keeps them at the top, maximising their performance — is continual learning and improvement.
Therefore, there are some questions that teams should remember at this stage, and these are the ones related to continued learning. I use a simple model based on traffic lights for this. I ask:
- Stop — What do we stop?
- Start — What do we start?
- Continue — What do we continue?
I would reflect on these questions at the end of every event. I would discuss these with my crew leaders and they, in turn, did so with their crews. In this way, we created an environment of continual learning and empowered everyone in the team to challenge and improve performance.
Renewal: Why continue?
If the vision (why) and mission (what) remain the same, then things can generally continue. But projects end and team members come and go as a normal process of life. Therefore, we always need to answer this question, which as you will notice, takes us full circle.
With my production team, every new event was a small renewal and an opportunity to reinforce the why. So we met at the beginning of the day to remind ourselves of how our actions would contribute to something much bigger.
The team grew and changed. When people joined our team, we made them part of the family. When people left, we grieved but also celebrated what they had done and shared their excitement for what they were moving on to. We made the process as natural and positive as possible. We ate a lot of cake along the way!
As a leader, when a team is functioning well, it is often easy to neglect the continued answering of this question. But you do so at your peril. Hard work is hard work. It makes people ask, “why bother?” Leaders need to reinforce the vision to stop people from becoming disillusioned.
To bring all this theory together, I have put the two models side by side in the picture below. The colours show how the five stages of the Tuckman model relate to the seven stages of the Drexler-Sibbet model.
Hopefully, you are now clear on the stages of team development and the questions that need to be answered to manage the building of a team from a group of individuals to a high-performance team.
Remember, too, that all teams experience change. That change might be faster or slower depending on the circumstances but that is why teams need continual leadership. Without this management, a team can get stuck, or even worse, can regress back through the development process.
Finally, remember that we all have a part to play, leaders or not. By understanding the stages of team development, we can all help our teams to improve, whatever our role or the purpose of that group.
So, think about the teams you are a part of. What stage are they in? Is it forming, storming, norming, performing, or adjourning? Which question do you need to answer to help them evolve?