What We Know About Team Development

I had the idea for this blog because of an article I saw recently on the Atlassian website. It tried to answer the question, “how do you build a kick-ass agile team”. Which is a great question. We would all benefit from knowing how to lead a team to greatness and how to know whether a team is on the path to greatness. Unfortunately, their answer was based on a popular belief that teams start by forming, then move through sequential stages of norming, storming, and then performing. And this model is based on social science research that has been debunked.


So instead I want to answer Atlassian’s question by reaching into the decades of social science about what makes teams great, and how you can apply coaching and agile team practices to set teams on that path.

Tuckman’s model of Team Development

The Tuckman Model In 1965, Tuckman examined 50 empirical research efforts to arrive at his own group dynamics model. Tuckman (1965) concluded that groups develop through a sequence of four discrete stages: the first stage, Forming, is the initial group coming together; the second stage, Storming, involves conflict among the group members; the third stage, Norming, is when the group actually begins to find value in working together and establishes processes that enable the group to function; and the fourth stage, Performing, represents the time when the group is working together smoothly and is able to share ideas and accomplish goals. In 1977, Tuckman, together  with Mary Ann Jensen, added a fifth stage “Adjourning” which occurs when a group wraps up its work and then dissolves.

Research that debunks Tuckman’s sequential model of team development

In 2007 the Department of Defense published a study of 321 technical teams.

The goal of this research was to develop empirical evidence to determine whether or not the Tuckman model or some variant thereof provides an appropriate model to explain the development of small, short-duration technical teams within the Acquisition Community. The results showed, to a 95% confidence level, that only about 2% of 321 teams studies followed the Tuckman model. 


Many teams skipped stages entirely or even passed through stages in a different sequence. And storming seemed to be happening consistently all the way through the teams lifecycle.


To be fair to Tuckman he had warned researchers that the application of this model to generic team settings may be inappropriate since the majority of his data came from the population of therapy groups and human relations training groups.


Connie Gersick in 1988 found the teams she studied progressed in a pattern of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ through alternating inertia and revolution in the behaviours and themes through which they approached their work. The team’s progress was triggered more by member’s awareness of time and deadlines than by completion of an absolute amount of work in a specific developmental stage. Gersick found that lasting patterns for the team started very early in the team’s formation and persisted into periods of inertia. In addition, Gersick found that midpoints were significant milestones for teams, but it was midpoints between the time the team started a task / project and its deadline. This was the time that teams underwent great change.

Questions we want answers to about Teams

So if the developmental model of team development no longer works for us as a framework for coaching the team, then what does? And these are other questions we might pose:


  1. Why are many popular team building  approaches that focus on behaviors insufficient for fostering team effectiveness?
  2. Why do team building events feel good but fail to improve team performance?
  3. Why are some of our teams great and others struggling?  Is it the team leader?
  4. How can we prevent unnecessary conflict and authority struggles in teams while also increasing psychological safety and trust?
  5. How can we develop a team in half the time, at half the cost and with twice the impact?
  6. How can we rapidly form a team when time is tight?

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