Lessons learned in the Forming and Storming team development phases

Andy Makar shares his simple strategies for effectively managing a project team in the first two phases of Bruce Tuckman's team development model, Forming and Storming.

Bruce Tuckman's team development model contains four phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. By understanding the stages, it helps to rationalize the initial politeness, eventual conflict, stress relieving agreement, and realized fluid team performance that project teams undergo. It is a natural cycle of team development that everyone experiences even if you haven't been through a formal organizational behavior course.

Teams can struggle in each of the various stages, and in this post, I share two key lessons I've learned about how to effectively manage project teams during the Forming and Storming phases.

Build rapport during the Forming phase

Forming is the "feel good" stage where each person learns about the other team members. In this phase, no one wants to raise conflicts or threaten authority. Not much gets done in this phase, but it is important to recognize the need for team formation.

My goal in this phase is to develop a good rapport with each of the team members. One way to do this is to learn interesting facts or personal information that may uncover a common bond. Project schedules and status reports may help manage projects but relationships deliver projects. By building rapport quickly with your team members, you can leverage those common connections when the Storming phase begins.

The Forming phase can include a variety of structured and unstructured events ranging from getting coffee, going to lunch, or hosting a dinner outside the office. It doesn't need to be a lavish event, although those types of events are fun to attend too. A few years ago, my director personally bought the entire army of consultants and employees Detroit Tigers tickets for a local home game. That night 40 people attended a baseball game, had a great time, and built rapport with each other. This was an extremely generous and personal investment in the project. When I asked why she bought the entire group tickets, she simply said "It had to be done." You don't have to do something as extravagant, but I think you get the idea.

Accept and embrace the Storming phase

As the project team begins to execute and form different opinions, team members will experience conflict. Role confusion, boundary definition, and working in a company's political hierarchy can contribute to conflict and frustration in the Storming phase. You might as well embrace the fact that the Storming phase will occur and come up with a plan to respond to conflict with your team members.

My plan is simple: When conflict arises, find the appropriate time to address it one-on-one with the individual. You need to treat a disagreement or stress between two team members as an issue and simply acknowledge it. By stating the issue and acknowledging it with the team members, you can safely express your concern and seek a resolution together. Addressing conflict can be uncomfortable, but remember that it isn't personal -- it is a project issue.

By going through the Storming phase and experiencing conflict, I've actually developed stronger rapport with individuals and improved our relationships. Some of my strongest relationships with team members resulted from a clear disagreement that was respectfully acknowledged and resolved.

If you ignore the issue and think it will go away, Storming will only continue to hinder team performance.

Resources on Forming and Storming

If you know teams are going to form and storm, it always a good idea to have some resources to help you get through the challenges. Here are several few recommended books on building rapport and resolving conflict:

In my next article, I'll share more lessons learned as we continue through Tuckman's team development model.