Leadership hack 022 – it’s OK, teams change
Teams are complex and dynamic systems (see here). One day a team can be cooking on gas, building great products that customers value and enjoy, on other days it can feel that the team is stuck in a quagmire of interpersonal conflict and confusion. Teams also change over time, a team that has just got together will be very different from the same team after a year.
I have found it helpful to use Tuckman’s (1965) stages of team development (expanded by Edison) to show how teams change over time, and it is normal for teams to dip and rise in performance.
Try this with your team.
Draw out the diagram below explaining each of the stages. Once the diagram is drawn in full, ask team members to mark on the diagram where they feel the team is (you need a strong psychology safety to do this constructively). You will often find differences in perspective and gain valuable insight as to how the team feels as a whole, and how individuals think the team is performing. If you have the time, ask questions about their answers. At the end of the session, you want to get agreement from everyone on the team to work towards (or stay at) high-performing. You should also have a list of things you need to change to get there, but this list will depend on what phase you are currently on.
While the main point of the exercise is to find out where people feel the team is, some other key points are helpful.
- Change is natural and will happen
- Storming is natural, we are all human
- To become high-performing, we need to normalise our behaviour, which will involve either acceptance or adaption by everyone on the team
- Be careful of complacency, and use significant events (big mistakes or new joiners) to re-visit this diagram
So use Tuckman’s/Edison’s work to diagnose your team’s performance. Show them that it’s normal to change and that teams take time and effort to become high-performing.
Forming – the phase of orientation, testing and dependence. When a group of people come together for the first time, each will try to understand and orientate themselves. The primary concern is not upsetting the rest of the team members as they start to build relationships. Productivity is low, as individuals do not fully understand their roles and their place on the team.
To move beyond this phase, the team needs to:
- Get stuck into the work
- Make roles and responsibilities clear (see my post here)
- Help team members find peers outside the team to help them get up to speed
Storming – the phase of the conflict. Once the honeymoon period has worn off, high levels of ambiguity and people’s differences start to cause tension. The team has yet to build trust and understanding, so there is little to mediate the interpersonal conflict. Productivity is poor as everyone focuses on mediating conflict and protecting themselves.
To move beyond this phase, the team needs to:
- Make retrospectives more frequent, so that molehills do not grow into mountains
- As a leader spend more time coaching and getting/receiving feedback from everyone on the team so that they can vent, have their opinions validated, but also be guided to think about the team rather than themselves
- Explain the written and unwritten rules of the company/division, and set some team norms (see my post here)
- Take time for people to get to know each other more personally. Go off-site, encourage people to go for a coffee with one another. They key is to get people to understand each other’s context (experience, hopes, fears, strengths, weaknesses)
Norming – the phase of group cohesion. As team members negotiate with each other, they either adapt or accept each other differences. Productivity improves, as the team focuses more on the task than interpersonal differences.
To move beyond this phase, the teams need to:
- Maintain one-to-ones between team members
- Repeatedly communicate team vision and goal, so that the team’s purpose is clear
- Set personal objectives for each member of the team. Goal setting should be done together and should try to match the individual’s aspirations with what the team and the company wants to achieve
Performing – the phase of functional excellence. Energy is channelled into getting stuff done. The team is purpose-driven where members enjoy working together to solve problems and conquer challenges.
To stay in this phase, the team needs to:
- Reflect more deeply on why the team is performing well
- Conduct a pre-mortum “if we imagine we are six months into the future, when and why did we stop being a great team.”
- Provide growth and novel opportunities for team members, to prevent them from getting stale or board
Informing, the calm before the storm. The team has worked hard to become high-performing. The team’s success is recognised outside the team, and the team is used as a beacon of best practice. Being used as an example of best practice will have a positive impact on the team due to the Hawthorn effect.
Conforming – the start of the slip. Hubris is the punishment of the gods – the team’s success means that they no longer strive to learn and take risks. The environment changes, and what worked in the past no longer works. Productivity tails off as the team ‘members have begun to think alike, and any of the unique yet appropriate ideas… from the team are lost or decreased because the team members are beginning to develop the characteristics of groupthink.’
To break out of this phase, the team needs to:
- Analise failures deeply. Try to get to the root cause of the recent failures and find patterns (use the 5 ‘whys’ or another framework)
- Get outside perspectives. Bring in outsiders to observe or contribute to discussions and decision-making to avoid groupthink
Transforming – the phase of re-discovery. The team identifies the root causes of recent failures and then adapts to their new environment. Productivity increases as the team have learnt to adjust and are buoyed by their recent success.
To transform the team needs to:
- Carry on experimenting to refine their new approach
- Renew team norms
- Continue to avoid group-think by actively questioning underlying assumptions and bringing in outside perspectives
Deforming – team failure. The team fails to recognise and learn from their failures, the tension and stress on the team will increase. Additional scrutiny will make taking risks more difficult, and the team will continue to flounder and fail.
To recover the team need:
- Leadership involvement from outside the team will usually be required to make it clear that current performance is unacceptable
- Members of the team who refuse to adapt may need to be removed from the team
- As a last resort, if performance does not improve, the team should be disbanded
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