Being a team leader is an integral part of every product manager’s role. Even if managing a team isn’t explicitly mentioned in your job description, as a product manager, you are an informal leader whose actions significantly influence the team’s performance and morale.
In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the Tuckman model and show you how to lead your team through all five phases of group development: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.
Table of contents
What is the Tuckman model?
The Tuckman model is a theory that suggests each team undergoes five distinct lifecycle phases:
Initially, relationships and trust are built from scratch during what is known as the forming phase. This stage is followed by the emergence of friction and conflict within the team, leading to a turbulent storming phase.
Once these initial conflicts are resolved and team members learn how to collaborate effectively, they begin to rebuild during the norming phase. This leads to the fourth stage where high efficiency is achieved: the performing phase.
The fifth and final stage identified in this model is adjourning or closing. This occurs once a project concludes. It involves wrapping up tasks, celebrating achievements, and parting ways or moving on to new projects:
Despite being developed nearly six decades ago in 1965, the Tuckman model remains relevant and applicable to contemporary teams. Its five-stage approach provides a comprehensive understanding of team dynamics from inception to conclusion.
How the Tuckman model impacts team performance
Tuckman’s forming-storming-norming-performing-adjourning model is frequently utilized because it accurately depicts how a team’s effectiveness evolves over time:
In its initial stages, a new team operates with average efficiency. As it begins working on challenging tasks and conflicts arise, there’s usually a dip in effectiveness. Therefore, expecting a newly formed team to tackle significant challenges efficiently might be unrealistic.
However, as the storming phase subsides and the team progresses through norming and performing stages, its effectiveness increases exponentially. Eventually, the team reaches the adjourning stage where they reflect on their achievements and prepare for disbandment or transition.
This is where effective leadership plays a pivotal role. A competent leader can expedite the process of building a new team while minimizing dips in effectiveness during storming and maximizing productivity during norming, performing, and even during the adjourning stages.
The duration for traversing all five phases can range from as short as three months to as long as several years. This timeline depends on both formal and informal leaders’ ability to guide their teams through these stages effectively. The addition of the adjourning stage acknowledges that teams often have a finite lifespan and need to be guided through this final phase effectively to ensure a smooth transition or closure.
Tuckman’s 5 stages of team development
In the initial weeks, team members begin to familiarize themselves with one another. They strive to understand their roles, the objectives they’re aiming for, and how to function cohesively as a team.
During this phase, most individuals feel uncertain and often hold back from providing substantial feedback or questioning established procedures. They prefer to wait and see what unfolds.
As a leader, your primary objective during the forming stage is to provide clarity to your team. Continually remind them of the vision you’re striving toward, the goals that lie ahead, and why these objectives are significant.
Allocate ample time for one-on-one sessions and teamwide context-setting meetings. Don’t hesitate to over-communicate or over-explain things. The sooner your team grasps the basics, the better.
You’ll also want to build momentum as quickly as possible. This often requires you to take a directive approach initially. This doesn’t mean micromanaging, but proactively suggesting next steps, recommending directions, and identifying potential risks. Most teams need an initial spark before they can develop their own proactive habits.
Once some momentum has been gained and team members have become familiar with each other’s workflows and methods, storming ensues.
This is arguably the most critical of all five phases, and many teams find themselves stuck at this juncture.
Team members start challenging each other during this phase. Some may attempt to dominate the group while others may adopt a passive stance. Conflicts and misunderstandings are common occurrences during this stage.
Many dysfunctional team behaviors develop at this stage, such as lack of trust, fear of conflict, and absence of accountability. However, I always find it encouraging when my team members start conflicting with each other. It’s an essential step that all teams must go through as they mature.
This phase can be draining and time-consuming for leaders. To navigate the storming stage, keep the following in mind:
- Observation — Be observant. Take note of every issue or problem you notice in relationships between team members and their collaborative efforts
- Address issues individually — The team requires a lot of attention and coaching at this stage. Try to understand each member individually; by asking insightful questions and nudging them in the right direction, you can help them resolve issues
- Conflict management — Although product managers shouldn’t always lead facilitation meetings or conflict resolution sessions in the long run; you might need to step up initially
- Retroactive focus — Refer back to your earlier notes and prepare retrospectives that will help unpack these problems. You might even consider increasing retrospective frequency during storming
- Soft skills training — This is also an ideal time to invest in soft-skills training, such as expert-led Nonviolent Communication (NVC) workshops
- Vigilance for dysfunction — Be vigilant for signs of dysfunctional behavior within your team and address them promptly as they arise. Most tend to develop during the storming phase
You’ll notice the storming phase has passed when the number of conflicts, misunderstandings, and frustrated team members decrease. This is when the team starts rebuilding. After gaining a deeper understanding of each other’s needs and pain points, the team can begin establishing processes and routines that work best for them.
During this phase, the team experiments to find their rhythm. They set rules, processes, and routines to make their work easier and more efficient.
At this point, you should become less directive. The team should be able to manage well without your constant input and presence. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t need you. Shift your focus more towards coaching and support your team in finding their rhythm.
There’s a chance the team will want to set some routines and processes that aren’t aligned with your company policies – it’s your role to help the team make that happen regardless. After all, the team knows best what works for them.
Be vigilant for any signs of storming. The transition from storming to norming doesn’t happen overnight. It’s easy to fall back into storming if some dysfunctions go unnoticed. Also, remember that each team member is different; some might still require a lot of attention and help in resolving interpersonal issues.
After navigating through initial forming, intensive storming, and rebuilding during norming, magic happens.
Teams that successfully traverse all these phases are what we refer to when we mention “top performers”. People who know and trust each other, have learned how to work together, and found rhythms and routines that work for them can easily tackle any challenge.
A truly performing team can handle most problems on their own. But this doesn’t mean you’re not needed at all. Even the best teams need their coaches, right?
Keep an eye out for various team dysfunctions that can develop even in the best teams, especially if there’s rotation among team members at some point.
You should also continue providing much-needed context to the team. As a product manager, you’ll be more knowledgeable about what’s happening in the company and why certain decisions were made. Keep sharing this context with your team.
Ultimately, it’s a delicate balance to maintain. On one hand, you can’t neglect the team altogether. On the other hand, you must ensure that the team has most of the ownership over their direction and how they handle challenges.
The Tuckman model is widely recognized for its four primary stages, but there’s an often overlooked fifth stage: adjourning. Also known as the closing or deforming stage, adjourning occurs when a project concludes or a team disbands.
Adjourning is characterized by a winding down of project activities and the release of team members back into their respective functional areas or onto new projects. This phase can be filled with mixed emotions — satisfaction at having successfully completed the project, sadness at parting ways with team members, or anxiety about what lies ahead.
As a product manager, your role during this phase is to ensure a smooth transition for all team members. Here are some strategies to guide your team through the adjourning stage:
- Celebration and recognition — Celebrate your team’s accomplishments. This helps to foster a sense of achievement and closure
- Feedback and reflection — Encourage team members to reflect on their experiences during the project. What went well? What could have been done better?
- Support during transition — Provide support to team members as they transition to new roles or projects. This could involve helping them update their skills, providing references, or simply being available for a chat
- Debriefing — Conduct a final debriefing session where you review the project’s successes and challenges. Use this opportunity to gather insights that can be applied to future projects
- Documentation — Ensure all project documentation is completed and stored in an accessible location. This includes final reports, lessons learned, and any other relevant information that might be useful in the future
- Closure — This could be in the form of a final meeting, a celebratory event, or even just an email thanking everyone for their hard work
The quality of your team dynamics significantly impacts the quality of your outcomes. You can’t just assemble a random group of people and expect them to deliver exceptional results.
The best approach is to monitor the team and continually assess what stage of development they’re in, according to the Tuckman model, and contribute accordingly. This model, which originally consisted of four stages – Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing – was later expanded to include a fifth stage: Adjourning.
If you become too absent during the forming or storming stages, the team will struggle to progress. Conversely, if you’re too present and directive during norming, they won’t develop the sense of ownership needed for the team to truly perform.
In the final stage, adjourning, it’s important to provide closure and recognition for the team’s work. This often overlooked stage is crucial for maintaining morale and ensuring future collaboration.
Even though your role as a product manager involves shaping the product roadmap and driving outcomes, there are times when your primary focus should be on supporting your team through these five stages. This investment will yield significant dividends in the long run.
Featured image source: IconScout