Three Pitfalls of Traditional Team Building Models

In a previous episode of my podcast, Lessons from Mars, I mentioned that I became uneasy with the existing approaches to team development. I’d been working with Tuckman’s 4 Stages of Team Development - a standard in team development for decades.

Tuckman’s stages, which include Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing, offer useful insights into how groups form and mature as teams. However, as I dug deeper into the Four Stages as part of a team charged with creating a team development module for a Mars Management Development program, I found there were three key flaws with Tuckman’s model as it was applied to the corporate world.

Expert Model

The first aspect of Tuckman’s Four Stages that made me nervous was that, despite it’s friendly rhyming structure, it’s an expert model based on how developing groups handle conflict. Now, it isn’t an invalid approach; it just seemed ill-suited to our purposes. Remember, we were going to be training early career managers. To expect them to employ a conflict-focused approach, one that could raise tough issues and uncomfortable conversations, without the necessary skills to do so effectively was a recipe for trouble. Sure, it would make sense when a trained consultant or facilitator was present, but the model didn’t fit with the skill set and expectations of a young manager.

My team and I felt that managers and teams needed a more practical approach to be able to truly improve their effectiveness. 

Primarily Diagnostic

A real breakthrough occurred as I was doing my research and reviewing all of the engagements and data I’d collected over my years at Mars. Through that process, a particular instance stood out to me. Several years before, I had traveled to work with the team at Mars Horsecare. They had worked with a few external consultants prior to my arrival but were still struggling to work effectively as a team.

I engaged them through my then standard approach - starting with conducting interviews and collecting surveys. Once the data was collected and summarized, I gathered the team together and asked them to analyze the data summary as if it was another team’s - not their own. I broke them into small groups and, among other things, asked them to use Tuckman’s 4 Stages to assign this team a stage of development.

One subgroup declared that the data suggested a Stage 1 team and another chose Stage 3. Through some conversation, we all arrived at a conclusion. They were a Stage 2 team.

While arriving at that conclusion seemed like an accomplishment, one of the team members spoke up. He said, “You’re the 3rd or 4th person to do this with us. Every time we’re a Stage 2. What’s up with that?” 

First of all, that’s frustrating. In his view, consultants kept coming in to help them, but nothing changed. Identifying challenges and opportunities for improvement does not, on its own, lead to improvement. Also, he was onto something. I’d noticed the same pattern myself among the many teams I had worked with. Almost no matter how many times a team had used the Four Stages, they rarely reported progress over time. Clearly, something was off. 

From a Different Era

Once I had identified the challenges with a simply diagnostic approach, I continued to dig deeper to understand what it was about Tuckman’s model that was stopping short of helping teams move forward to improvement. I found the answer in the structure of the model itself. 

A stage-based model is linear - as if the progression of a team is predictable. Perhaps, once it was. But, when applied to our current organizational world, Tuckman’s linear model falls short. At Mars, and elsewhere I’m sure, teams form, reform, add members, and get new leaders every few months. According to Tuckman’s model, any one of these events would send a team back to Stage 1. So, if teams are always at Stage 1, how helpful is a four stage model? Not very. In fact, any linear model of team development fails to reflect the reality of the corporate world by ignoring the erratic patterns of life in a large company.

Then there was the matter of how Tuckman arrived at his stages. His model was based on an analysis of 50 articles that described how psychological therapy groups developed over time. Got that? The basis of his model was therapy groups. How much does a therapy group working in a clinical environment have in common with business team working in a volatile, ever-evolving business environment? Very little.

These insights were crucial in guiding the direction of our work on team development because it helped us understand that something different was needed.

Carlos Valdes-Dapena