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Tuckman’s stages of team development – how to keep innovative organisations performing

The four stages of team development by Bruce Tuckman is a core management model most leaders are familiar with. Teams start by ‘Forming’ and then go through a series of stages that eventually see them arrive at ‘Performing’ – with the advantages of being self-motivated, autonomous and competent.

It’s always been a popular and simple model and, when applied to a traditional workplace, it is easy to see teams move through these phases. However, the world of work looks very different today than when Tuckman created his model in 1965.

With the emergence of new ways of working, particularly in innovative industries, the model has its limitations because teams are often self organised and fluid; constantly changing depending on ideas and projects. This means that teams rarely get to the performing stage before they are spun back into forming.

So how can today’s innovative organisations support their dynamic teams to be continually performing? And, as we near the 2020s, can a model from the 1960s still support the performance of today’s teams? With a little coaching, recognition and communication, we think so.

Let’s start with a look at Tuckman’s team development model

Tuckman identified stages that he felt were all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to grow, face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work, and deliver results.

Forming - Team members behave independently. They are usually relatively uninformed of the issues and objectives of the team but often highly motivated. They are usually on their best behaviour but very focused on themselves and their impact.

Storming - Disagreements and personality clashes must be resolved before the team can progress out of this stage. The duration, intensity and destructiveness of the "storms" can be varied. Tolerance of each team member and their differences should be emphasised; without tolerance and patience the team will fail.

Norming - "Resolved disagreements and personality clashes result in greater intimacy, and a spirit of co-operation emerges." This happens when the team is aware of competition and they share a common goal. In this stage, all team members take the responsibility and have the ambition to work for the success of the team's goals.

Performing - "With group norms and roles established, group members focus on achieving common goals, often reaching an unexpectedly high level of success.” By this time, they are motivated and knowledgeable. The team members are now competent, autonomous and able to handle the decision-making process without supervision.

Definitions paraphrased from Wikipedia.

Contemporary tactics for team performance

Use coaching for a smoother Storming phase

Self organising and innovative teams often recycle through the Storming phase more frequently than a traditional team structure. This can be disruptive if people are not skilled at handling conflict, negotiating and resolving differences. Getting stuck at this stage is not only unpleasant for the team but is hugely inefficient.

The key to success here is the ability to use coaching skills to help people work through their differences productively. Some organisations we work with use external coaches for this phase, some train internal coaches (particularly good if there is technical knowledge required) and some train all staff in coaching skills.

Leave space for good endings when teams move on

Tuckman added a fifth stage to the model later on, known as Adjourning or Mourning. This is when the team has completed their project and breaks up. This is particularly important for innovative teams. The temptation can be to quickly move team members onto new projects, but leaders should have something in the process for team members to celebrate their success and say goodbye in some way.

This doesn’t need to be onerous or a big party. Organisations we work with have wrap up lunches where each team member gets to say something to the rest of the team and thank them or they roll their goodbyes into the wrap up meeting. The key thing in this stage is that team members need to:

  1. be able to express and receive gratitude for a job well done from their colleagues and
  2. individuals and team need to take away learning from the project to take forward into their next team

Include some professional Formers in your team design

With teams forming quickly and having to get into the essence of a project immediately, there is often little time to let forming dynamics happen naturally. In addition a higher proportion of introverts and independent players in the tech and science industries makes this stage just a little bit painful for many leaders.

Having one or two people who are very skilled at collaboration and bringing people together on each team and making that part of your team design will help alleviate this. These people do not need to be the leader, but they should be people with some influence and responsibility for driving the project.

Organisations we work with train these people to be super skilled at communication, coaching and influencing and build their emotional regulation and resilience so that they can thrive and direct the chaotic and confusing stage and lead their colleagues through it.

In conclusion

Tuckman developed his model in a time when teams were far more stable and conventional than they are today. It was also a time when the coaching and leadership ‘soft’ skills that now facilitate better understanding and communication were far less commonplace.

We believe that high performing teams can still progress based on Tuckman’s model - particularly if today’s leaders bring good communication and leadership skills to the way teams are formed, managed and recognised. Doing this won’t only help the performance of the current team – it’s vital in helping the next one have a successful Forming stage – and beyond.

If you feel that coaching or leadership development would help create better performance - for yourself or your team - please get in touch.

For further information

Disruptive behaviour can be an inhibitor to the Storming phase. If you’d like to read more about how to resolve disruptive or difficult behaviour, especially if it becomes toxic, you might find our previous article of interest. How to spot when difficult behaviour becomes toxic – and resolve it.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into our training, coaching and personal development services and free resources, explore the Monkey Puzzle website.

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If you’d like our support in making these ideas work for you and your business, please get in touch.

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