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The Stages of a Maturing Creative Team

Treat your peers as grown-ups. There is no such thing as having minions or subservient task people in life. Your team and staff have to be given real responsibility. Help them when they need help, share your knowledge. Have empathy and be human. No one has a monopoly on great ideas. Not your senior people or your creatives. Ideas can come any way, from any one. Encourage it, you need all the ideas you can get.

All teams go through stages of development that are often independent of actual work phases. Teams develop in stages, over time, before they become productive. One of the most commonly used framework for understand the team’s stages of development was developed by Bruce W. Tuckman. (reference) His descriptions of Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning provide a useful framework to understand how teams develop and mature in their working relationships.

As a team transitions from one stage to the next, the needs of the team and its team members vary. Understanding why things are happening and exhibiting certain behaviors, can be an important part in helping your team successfully transition to the next stage of development.

The first four stages are a helpful way for recognizing a team’s behavioral patterns; they are most useful as a basis for establishing ways of best working with the team. The last stage, called adjourning, is when the team dissolves. The goal as a project manager is to identify what new behaviors are going to need to be established in order to improve team collaboration and efficiency, moving past each stage to a high performing team. 

Stage 1: Forming

How people feel

During the Forming stage of team development, team members are usually excited to be part of the team and eager about the work ahead. However, right now they are more of a group than a team. Some members will have high positive expectations, while others may be more reserved, wondering how they will fit in to the team and if their performance will up to par.

Team Behaviors

During the Forming stage there will be lots of questions from team members, reflecting both their excitement about the new team and the uncertainty or anxiety they might be feeling about their place on the team. Individuals will have their own agendas during this stage because a team agenda does not exist. During this stage, team members will also begin to form opinions about who they can trust, and what level of involvement they will commit to the project.

Team Tasks

The principal work for the team leader during this stage is to create a sense that there is a team, not just a bunch of individual people. Allow the team time to help set clear structure, goals, direction and roles so that members can begin to build trust. A good kick-off process can help ground the team by establishing rules for working together, team expectations as well as agreeing on the team’s project mission and goals. During the Forming stage, much of the team’s energy will be focused on defining the team so the actual level of real task for that is getting done will be pretty low.

Project Leadership Style

During this stage, the team leader (or leaders) will be doing more directing, driving the process to get the team on the same page, by presenting the objectives and scope of the project. However, they should focus on a proper team startup procedure, getting the team to know each other, what’s expected of them and organize some time for the team to socialize. Now is the time to encourage open discussions and alate and feelings of concern they may have.

Stage 2: Storming

How people feel

As the team begins to move toward, some of the team is going to realize that the task is different or more difficult than they had imagined. Reality of the situation can produce a range of feelings, from being annoyed to their attitude about the team in general. During the Storming stage, members are trying to see how they fit in with the team and how others are responding to differences and the team is handling conflict.

Team Behaviors

Behaviors during this stage may be less collegiate than during the Forming stage, with frustration or disagreements about goals, expectations, roles, constraints and responsibilities being openly expressed. This frustration might be directed towards other members of the team, the team leadership or the team’s sponsor. If they think your a bad leader, they are going to let you know it. Interpersonal issues are going to be high, as some members chose to actively participate, while others are going to sit back and watch.

Team Tasks

As a leader during the Storming stage of development you may need to call for the team to refocus on its goals, perhaps breaking larger goals down into smaller, achievable steps with a subset of subleaders. The team may need to develop both new ways of working. A redefinition of the team’s goals, roles and tasks can help team members past the frustration or confusion they experience during this stage.

Project Leadership Style

Team leaders need to strive to build a positive work environment, practicing their active-listening skills. managing conflict and driving consensus. The trust level at this stage usually comes in the form of building alliances, while your goal is to have the entire group working together. If new ideas are not emerging at this stage, and team members are not challenging each other’s ideas, then creativity is at standstill. Help the team deal with differences, give feedback early and often, look to help people build relationships.

Stage 3: Norming

How People Feel

During this stage, team members have begun to resolve the discrepancy they felt between their individual expectations and the reality of the team’s experience. As this is the stage where work is usually being completed, hopefully the team, individually and collectively have come together and establish a group identity that allows them to work together. People should experience an increased sense of comfort in expressing their “real” ideas and feelings. Cooperation and collaboration have replaced the mistrust that characterized the Storming Stage. Team members should start to feel part of a team, adhering to agreed-upon rules and keeping communication clear.

Team Behaviors

Behaviors during this stage may include members making a conscious effort to resolve problems and work together as a group. There should be more frequent and more meaningful communication among team members A willingness to share ideas, ask teammates for help and capture lessons learned. Team members have discovered and accepted each other’s strengths and weaknesses and hopefully morale is high.

Team Tasks

During this stage, the team shift their energy to the team’s goals and show an increase in productivity, in both individual and collective work. 

Project Leadership Style

As a project leader, during this stage you are there to help maintain group collaboration and help ensure that the team maintains its motivation. Your job is to help the team with any blockages that prevent work from getting done. Your collaborating with the team as well at this point. As a leader, you need to watch out for groupthink. You may have to help them out by providing additional ways decision making, or group activities to encourage creative thinking. Now is the time to get the team into a pattern of working together.

Stage 4: Performing

How People Feel

The Performing stage of team development is where the team is working at its highest level. Team members tend to feel positive, and look forward to participating. Members feel attached to the team as something “greater than the sum of its parts” they know what to do and how to do it. Morale is high and the team is usually at it it’s highest creative stage.

Team Behaviors

Team members are able to prevent or solve problems in the team’s process or as the team’s progress. People are actively looking to assist others. Roles on the team may have become more fluid, with members taking on new roles and responsibilities as needed. 

Team Tasks

In this stage, the team is making significant progress towards its goals. Commitment to the team’s mission is high and the competence of team members is also high. Team members should continue to deepen their knowledge and skills, including working to continuously improving team development. 

Project Leadership Style

A high performing team can only sustain this level of performance for a certain period of time. As a team leader you need to have a light touch to help facilitate the work. Act as a coach when necessary, encourage new lines of thinking and creativity. Actively reward the team for small achievements, but in general stay out of the way and just be a part of the team. As a leader you can also support the group by encouraging more advanced problem solving techniques. You may look for ways that you can encourage personal development, and assist in managing change.

Stage 5: Adjourning, The end of a team.

Creative projects are often short, lasting days, weeks or only a few months.  I encourage agencies to continue to build and maintain teams the best they can so that when a project comes to the end, you can build on team behavioral successes. If you continue to encourage the team and feed it new work, you can continue a high level of performance that is ongoing.

    However, even the best teams break-up. Certainly celebrate the end of the project. The end of a great team can cause all sorts of feelings for individuals. Working in teams at a high level can have a family like atmosphere, and when the family breaks up, people need encouragement and a bit of help to find their way in a new team family.

    Not every team that you will work with will actual get through to the Norming and Performing stage. There are many reasons why this can happen, some individuals lose their motivation no matter what strategies you try. Team conflict may become irreparable if tempers fail. Interpersonal relationships are complicated. This is why as a project manager you need to manage the team in ways that help them through each stage so that the work can get done in the most efficient way possible.