You can please some of the people some of the time
Bruce Tuckman’s Model (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning) is Highly Relevant and Beneficial, But It Doesn’t Please Everyone
08 November 2021
Names and certain identifying details are not included or are redacted (replaced with black rectangles) to respect privacy.
Steve Jobs famously said “You can please some of the people some of the time” in response to a tough question at the 1997 Worldwide Developer Conference. The following experience reminded me of that quote.
In a recent workshop on team leadership, a student asked me, “What do you think about █████████’s disregard of Tuckman’s model?” (Note: The student was referring to a person who's an expert in agile and Scrum. The expert's name is redacted, subsequently referred to as “critic.” His or her stance seems to be the rare exception.) I’m detailing my response here.
The Background for Context
Bruce Tuckman (Ph.D. in Psychology from Princeton University) conducted extensive research on group dynamics, and he published a related model in 1965. At that time, the model included four phases: forming, storming, norming, and performing. However, Dr. Tuckman subsequently determined that adjourning was so important that he (with Mary Ann Jensen) updated his model in 1977 to add adjourning as the fifth phase. In the context of this discussion, phases and stages may be used interchangeably; and group dynamics is also referred to as group development, team dynamics, and team development.
Dr. Tuckman’s model has stood the test of time because it remains highly relevant and beneficial. Since his related work was published, it has been supported by additional peer-reviewed research. And it has received recommendations and coverage from leading organizations including Google, Harvard Business Review, IEEE, Forbes, MIT, Fast Company, NASA, Microsoft, TNW, Project Management Institute, Scrum Alliance, Scrum.org, Association for Project Management, Gartner, CIO, Spotify, Imperial College London, RAND Corporation, Princeton University, Software Engineering Institute, University of Edinburgh, Cisco, KPMG, Warsaw University of Technology, DevOps Institute, American Express, SANS Institute, Zurich University, SAP, ViacomCBS, Oxford University, American Management Association, AT&T, University of Southern California, IBM, and many others.
While Tuckman’s model is durable and relevant, no model is perfect. It can be helpful to understand any concerns or limitations—with an emphasis on any which are independently verifiable and are published in peer-reviewed studies.
I related to the student that there are critics of Tuckman’s model, but that they’re few—and I’m not familiar with criticisms meeting the aforementioned rigor of being independently verifiable with such findings appearing in peer-reviewed studies.
I said, for example, that I was already aware of the critic's stated disregard of Bruce Tuckman’s model. I previously looked into the situation to learn more. My research and findings follow.
The Research and Findings
In a █████ communication, the critic said “I never liked ...” referring to Tuckman’s model. He or she went on to state that his or her reason was that “Gersick tested it ...” (Tuckman’s model) and “...it’s not true.” The critic included a link to the paper which was the basis for his or her stance. The link goes to the following paper:
Curtis, B., Walz, D., and Elam, J. (1990, October 1). Studying the Process of Software Design Teams. In: ISPW '90: Proceedings of the 5th International Software Process Workshop on Experience with Software Process Models, pages 52-53.
The critic said that “Gersick tested it” and pointed to the paper. However, Gersick is not an author on the paper. Still, I reviewed the content to see what, if anything, the authors (Curtis, Walz, and Elam) said about Tuckman, Tuckman’s model, and/or Gersick. Here’s what I found.
On Tuckman: Tuckman was not mentioned anywhere in the paper.
On Tuckman’s model (a reference to forming, storming, norming, performing, and/or adjourning): The following appears: “Rather than the standard group process of form-storm-norm-perform, Gersick suggested there came a point halfway through a group project where the team faced its lack of progress.”
On Gersick: Gersick was mentioned four times: “Gersick (1988) observed such a point in a study of project teams” and “Rather than the standard group process of form-storm-norm-perform, Gersick suggested there came a point halfway through a group project where the team faced its lack of progress” and “Gersick's model may be more descriptive of temporary teams that are asked to perform tasks out of their area of expertise” and (a reference citation) “Gersick, C.J.G. (1988). Time and Transition in Work Teams: Toward a New Model of Work Development. Academy of Management Journal, 31 (1), 9-41.”
The critic said that “Gersick tested it” ... and “...it’s not true.” However, as a summary of the above, Gersick is not the author of the paper, and the authors (Curtis, Walz, and Elam) commented that Tuckman’s model did not seem to work for one project. On that one project, “Rather than ... form-storm-norm-perform ... there came a point halfway through ... where the team faced its lack of progress.” That does not negate Tuckman’s model. While teams typically move through the different phases, it’s entirely possible for a team to face a lack of progress at a given time. Phases don’t progress magically; the phase is a marker of the team’s current progress and effectiveness. The critic said that “Gersick tested it” ... and “...it’s not true.” The research specified by the critic did not state that it tested Tuckman’s model and found it to not be true. The research specified by the critic does not support his or her stand. Nevertheless, I dug deeper.
The above paper by Curtis, Walz, and Elam includes Gersick’s work as a reference. I found and carefully reviewed Gersick’s respective research. Again, it’s: “Gersick, C.J.G. (1988). Time and Transition in Work Teams: Toward a New Model of Work Development. Academy of Management Journal, 31 (1), 9-41.” I looked to see what Gersick said about Tuckman or his model. Here’s what I discovered.
Tuckman was mentioned five times: “There was no initial ‘storming’ (Tuckman, 1965; Tuckman & Jensen, 1977) in this group” and “First, as Tuckman pointed out in 1965 and others have noted up to the present (Hare, 1976; McGrath, 1986; Poole, 1983b), they offer snapshots of groups at different points in their life-spans but say little about the mechanisms of change” and “Since all teams were doing construction work on their projects during phase 2, similar to ‘performing’ in Tuckman’s (1965) synthesis, it was a time when teams were more similar to both each other and to the traditional model than they were in phase 1” and (a reference citation) “Tuckman, B. 1965. Developmental Sequence in Small Groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63: 384-399” and (another reference citation) “Tuckman, B., & Jensen, M. 1977. Stages of Small-Group Development. Group and Organizational Studies, 2: 419-427.”
The critic said that “Gersick tested it” ... and “...it’s not true.” However, as a summary of the above, Gersick did not state that Tuckman’s model was tested and found to not be true. For example, Gersick did not say that there was no storming; rather, it was qualified as “no initial ‘storming.’” Furthermore, and most importantly, Gersick provided the following caveat: “This study must be interpreted with caution. It was hypothesis-generating, not hypothesis-testing; the model is expressly provisional.” According to Gersick, the research did not test or prove anything.
The research—both the paper pointed to by the critic, and the reference study—does not supply the stated basis for the critic's stance.
The Conclusion with the Answer
In conclusion, Tuckman’s model has stood the test of time because it remains highly relevant and beneficial. No model is perfect, and it is helpful to understand any concerns or limitations—with an emphasis on any which are independently verifiable and are published in peer-reviewed studies.
My answer to the student’s question (“What do you think about █████████’s disregard of Tuckman’s model?”) was that I diligently reviewed the facts and neither the paper linked to by the critic, nor the other study cited by the paper, support the critic’s assertion that “Gersick tested it ...” (Tuckman’s model) and “...it’s not true.”
Maybe—or maybe not—the critic's view of the model is because of a misunderstanding regarding the research. Or maybe—or maybe not—there's another reason. As Steve Jobs said, “You can please some of the people some of the time.”
The Phases of Team Development Visual
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About Scott M. Graffius
Scott M. Graffius, PMP, CSP-SM, CSP-PO, CSM, CSPO, SFE, ITIL, LSSGB is an agile project management practitioner, consultant, award-winning author, and international speaker. He has generated over 1.75 billion dollars of business value in aggregate for the organizations he has served. Graffius is the founder, CEO, and principal consultant at Exceptional PPM and PMO Solutions™ and subsidiary Exceptional Agility™, based in Los Angeles, California. His expertise spans project, program, portfolio, and PMO leadership inclusive of agile, traditional, and hybrid approaches. Content from his books (Agile Scrum and Agile Transformation), workshops, speaking engagements, and more have been featured and used by businesses, governments, and universities including Gartner, Microsoft, Deloitte, Oracle, Cisco, Ford, Qantas, Atlassian, Bayer, the National Academy of Sciences, the United States Department of Energy, the United States Army, Project Management Institute, the IEEE, the New Zealand Ministry of Education, Tufts University, Texas A&M University, Virginia Tech, Penn State, Warsaw University of Technology, University of Waterloo, Loughborough University London, and others. Graffius has spoken at 58 conferences and other events around the world, including Armenia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, United Kingdom, and the United States. Thinkers360 named Graffius a global top thought leader and influencer in four domains: Agile, Change Management, Digital Transformation, and GovTech.
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