Forming, Storming, Norming … Bullshitting

At risk of being burnt alive for heresy by the Coaching Inquisition, I have to publish this post. I said to myself “if see a reference to Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing again I will blow up”. So, here it is. Enjoy!

Perhaps, one of the most widespread model of group development is Tuckman’s model.

Tuckman Model of Group Development

It’s being used as reference material in trainings and certifications of all kinds. And, I understand that, because it is catchy, easy and sounds familiar. But, has anyone ever wondered where is this model coming from?

Today I bring you five reasons why you should stop using this model.

  1. This model was developed based on the analysis Bruce Tuckman did of several literature reviews and psychoanalytical studies of therapy groups. Basically reading, not real observation or experimentation whatsoever
  2. Just in case you didn’t notice when reading previous point. This theory is based on Therapy Groups. WTF? Really? Yes, that kind of group where people introduce themselves by “Hello, my name is John and I’m an alcoholic”. That kind of group
  3. This was year 1965. Do you have an idea how the world was in 1965? Do you think organizations in 1965 had anything in common with organizations in 2016?
  4. From Systems Theory we know that a Closed System like a T-group is not exactly the same as an Open System like a team in an organization which self-regulates by feedback loops with its environment
  5. In 1988, organizational psychologist Connie Gersick published a qualitative study of eight naturally occurring teams working on short-term projects. Her results did not support the established view of group development. Instead, Gersick proposed a model of “punctuated equilibrium”

Despite many challenges to the idea that groups develop across time, the concept remains so ingrained in the culture that managers, team leaders, coaches and consultants routinely are taught to consider the phases of group development in their interactions with workplace teams.

Do you really think that a complex system like a team develops over time in a linear and deterministic 4-phase way? Really? I don’t think so, too easy and simple.

Exactly the same that happens with right-brain/left-brain theory, which is being used in trainings everywhere, even at universities. The problem here is not so much if the theory is right or wrong, but how it is being adopted as a standard and used in management, leadership and coaching training without even knowing where it is coming from, that it was proven false in 1988 by Gersick and that the scientific research community don’t have a clue about how groups develop over time.

Why? I think that’s because of its catchy stage names and some powerful cognitive biases at play. If like me, you have been using this model, you have been a victim of your own brain:

  • Confirmation Bias – “I see what I believe”
  • Availability Bias – “I see what is closer and easier to find although statistically meaningless”
  • Familiarity Bias – “If it is easy and sounds familiar it must be true”

And, are there any other group development models? Yes, many. In the figure below we can see some of them. Which is the right one? Research community has no clue.

Group Development Models

So, what should we do? Do we really need a model for group development? No, what we have to do is set the foundations for great team performance and let every team develop in its own way.

We know those conditions that allow teams to develop: shared purpose, psychological safety, working agreements and shared accountability. So, don’t be fooled by a theory developed in 1965 by reading psychoanalytical studies of therapy groups.

Next time you see Tuckman’s model think about it: “Forming – Storming – Norming … Bullshitting”. Putting some science in your life won’t hurt, seriously.


Gerard Chiva.

Some references:


2 thoughts on “Forming, Storming, Norming … Bullshitting

  1. I agree and disagree, Gerard.

    If you hear somebody say that a team will go through these four stages in a line and eventually ascend to Performing nirvana and produce boatloads of value just like that, then yeah, that’d be BS. I honestly don’t know if Tuckman originally described the model that way. I personally never heard anyone ever saying that.

    And that was the part where I agree on. I disagree on most of the rest, and specifically:

    1: “This model was based on literature, not experimentation”. I don’t work for the academia. If the model is useful, then it doesn’t become any less useful because it was conceived in sin. I saw it work in practice, and so far so good.
    2: “This theory is based on Therapy Groups.” Most of the models I use for software developers were developed in very different environments. Why should the dynamics of therapy groups be especially different from those of any other social group?
    3. “Do you think organizations in 1965 had anything in common with organizations in 2016?” This is not a model about organizational structures. It’s a model about social dynamics. It would probably have been useful for teams of wooly mammoth hunters.
    4. “Doesn’t apply to self-regulated teams”. I’d contend that if a team is self-regulating, then it’s already working around the “Performing” end of the diagram. How did they get there? Didn’t they get to set shared rules at some points? Didn’t they have conflict as the drive for those regulation moments? Didn’t they explore each other’s opinions before they could have those conflicts?
    5. “Punctuated equilibrium is a better way to describe group dynamics” It may be, but I don’t see any inherent conflict between Punctuated Equilibrium and this model, just like I don’t see a conflict between Punctuated Equilibrium in evolution and the observation that living creature evolve towards increasing complexity. It’s just two useful ways of looking at the same thing.

    Every single team I observed went through some Forming and Norming process. The nervous politeness of Forming, and then the open conflict of Storming, which is usually marked by that uneasy conversation with a manager. The manager is usually saying: “But we didn’t have all these conflicts before we tried self-organized teams!” The Norming/Performing stages are maybe less markedly distinct, but you can usually see people setting up some kind of rule to regulate conflicts, and then moving on as the shared rule becomes so embedded in the group culture that it’s now a solved problem.

    Again, the point where I do agree with you is that all this stuff doesn’t happen in a clean straight line. Any pressure in the environment creates ripples in the group dynamics, and these ripples result in a minor Forming/Storming/Whatever process. It’s something that happens again and again at different levels, sometimes in circles, it sometimes gets stuck on a stage, or reverts back to a previous stage. And yet, this model it is the best tool I’ve found so far to explain to that concerned manager why his people, who used to breeze through their workday and barely ever took off their headsets, are suddenly yelling at each other.

    In any case, this was a brilliant post. Challenging common assumptions is always food for thought. Thank you for it.

    1. Thanks for your reply, it is longer than the post 🙂

      When we talk from the domain of opinions and beliefs everybody is right. You have some beliefs and observations and I have others, which might be completely different. Hence, what I’m trying to make is a scientific point. If a model is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, then it is wrong. Imagine for a moment that laws of conservation of momentum or thermodynamics where sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

      You can use this model, but be aware that it has been proven false, by real experimentation with real work groups, against the initial theory based on psychoanalytic studies.

      I also think the conditions under which a theory is develop or an experiment is done must be replicated in order to apply it again. Would you take a drug that has not been tested in humans? I agree with you that this is a model of social dynamics, so probably my argument about year 1965 is the only one which doesn’t make much sense, or no, I don’t know. Do you still apply Scientific Management or do you apply other models of management in 21st century? So, maybe the argument about the year is not that bad. Anyways, really?, a model develop based on T-groups applied to teams in organizations? There must be something better.

      As Eric Ries says “Nothing is required except the laws of physics, everything else is a hypothesis”.

      A few years ago, I did some research on evolution of groups over time, and after reading and comparing lots of models and studies I got to the conclusion that research community has no clue about how groups develop over time. So, why use any model like this?

      On the other hand, from a practitioner standpoint, and talking from the experience of a team coach and manager, I’d like to bring to your attention pigmalion effect and confirmation bias. So, if you belief that a team has to go through those stages you may force the team to go through them.

      From a team coach perspective I believe teams have to go through their own process, every team different from any other team. Some teams will perform, others will have to let someone go, and others will never get pass the forming stage.

      I’ve been working with teams a lot, and I’ve never used this model. And I will never use it, of course.

      Everyone is free to believe on this, but from a scientific standpoint it is wrong, and I’m one of those crazy people that believe in science.

      Last, but not least. I’m a fan of Systems Thinking as well as a Systemic Coach, and after going through many training courses and reading studies and books, I still have to see a linear, deterministic and causal model that explains evolution of human groups.

      If with this post I get just one person, just one, to stop using this model, I can say “Mission accomplished!” 🙂

      Thanks again for reading and replying.

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