Given the impact of COVID-19 on organizations around the world, teams are grappling with how to continue moving initiatives forward to support organizational objectives, while force fitting personal lives into a new way of living and working. We’re facing a new world in which remote work rapidly became the new norm, millions of people each week are filing for unemployment benefits, and families and friends are facing the unimaginable loss of loved ones.

Team development, a concept that builds on the work of education psychologist Bruce Tuckman, in the 1960s, focuses on a process that a team goes through to become high performing. This cycle – from forming through performing – is intended to be repeated regularly. In these uncertain times, this is even more important, as new events unfold and teams continue to evolve. The impact of job losses and frequent pivots – both tactical and strategic – all contribute to a faster team cycling pace with increasing demands on being a high-performing organization.

Stages (Cycle) of Team Development

Forming

Many teams may need to go back to the Forming stage of team development as a result of dramatic changes in team composition (including the impact of layoffs and re-organizations), new (virtual) work environments, and the introduction of external stresses and factors. In the Forming stages, team members often have a mix of anticipation and anxiety; today, there is likely more anxiety than anticipation.

Because of the substantial internal and external factors that have become our new reality over the past few weeks and months, the main goal of the Forming stage is to build, and rebuild, trust amongst team members.

Teams are encouraged to come together for one to two hours in a virtual setting to reset in the Forming stage. Ideally, this facilitated discussion should include as much visual communication as possible, and all outcomes should be captured and shared. Leverage tools like Wikis or shared file applications to make information accessible to the team and any others who would benefit from the information. Transparency is also critical, along with enthusiasm for new opportunities and empathy for the uncertainty.

Key Activities for Forming Teams:

Team Charter:

Define the mission and the outcome the team is tasked with achieving. This could be the delivery of a specific project, the development of a capability, or even the launch of a new product or service.

Team Working Agreement:

The team should collectively define and agree upon its working behaviors. These can range from topics like “we always meet virtually at 9 AM” to “we hold each other accountable and value healthy debate.”

Team Communication Framework:

Communications are even more important in this virtual world. Determine how the team prefers to communicate and track information. Options can range from text to email, to Slack or Teams, and dozens of other options. One of the key elements is an emphasis on capturing information, decisions, and artifacts in an accessible, digital way.

Storming

Most teams will go through a challenging and stressful Storming stage of development as they are reforming in the new way of working. There will likely be conflict among team members, especially if new contributors have been introduced into existing teams.

Given external stresses, such as job losses of family and friends, concerns about school schedules and, in some cases, the loss of loved ones due to COVID-19, conflicts may become more pronounced. This is a critical time for leaders to create safe spaces and leverage conflict mediation and resolution techniques to quickly identify and address issues amongst the team.

Leaders and team members should use this stage of development to reinforce and evolve the mission and objectives. The team working agreement should also be referenced often and updated as needed.

Key Activities for Storming Teams

Breaking Down Work:

Teams that are newly formed are often inclined to take on units of work that are very large, which can cause negative downstream impacts on things such as estimates and resource needs. By aggressively breaking down work into smaller tasks, teams are more likely to meet commitments and experience positive success.

Revise Team Charter and Working Agreement:

Teams should continually inspect and adapt as they come together and mature. Learnings and practices should be captured and made available for current and new team members. Stick to the original mission and objectives as much as possible but recognize when it makes sense to pivot to move successfully toward team goals.

Conflict Resolution:

One of the key roles of leaders (as well as Project Managers and Agile Scrum Masters) is to recognize, approach, and mediate conflicts amongst team members. In some cases, HR or other experts in the organization may be engaged to resolve issues quickly.

Norming

In the Norming stage, high-performing teams start to resolve conflicts and address disconnects between (high) internal expectations and what may be the (often lower) reality of team capabilities and performance.

Communication at this stage is critical, and in the new (virtual) world, it can be more difficult to effectively communicate using both verbal and non-verbal signals. This is a great time to ensure that webcams are turned on and teams follow the practices that were agreed upon as part of the development of the team charter and team working agreement.

Leaders can expect teams to release and deliver features and capabilities more frequently. Measures such as velocity and quality often increase at this stage as well. Leaders should also begin to demonstrate appreciation and recognize and reward positive behaviors and outcomes.

Key Activities for Norming Teams

Retrospectives:

Leverage a regular cadence of retrospectives by and with the team to identify what the team should ‘keep doing,’ ‘stop doing,’ and ‘start doing.’ There are dozens of approaches and facilitation techniques to keep this ritual valuable and engaging – but the key is to do them regularly!

Empowerment:

Often at this stage, tensions start to emerge, especially from mid-tier management about their role, as teams take on more self-organizing behaviors. Leaders should recognize and actively coach managers to develop their coaching and servant leadership behaviors within the existing norms of the organization.

Training:

This is also a time to invest in training for individuals and the overall team. There are numerous options that provide free or low-cost options around specific skill development, and industry and technical knowledge. A great free option is the “lunch and learn,” which combines an informal (virtual) get-together with an opportunity for team members to share knowledge and expertise with their peers.

Performing

Becoming and sustaining a high-performing team should be one of the key goals of any great leader, as well as for members of these teams. At this stage, members often start to identify with the team over the individual and performance metrics continue to improve. Teams also develop strong characteristics like holding each other accountable and supporting an environment in which it is not only safe, but encouraged, to ask for help.

This is a time to both celebrate achievement and focus on improvement. Continue to leverage efforts such as retrospectives and training to further invest in teams for short- and long-term benefits.

With the continuous changes that are occurring outside many organizations due to macro-economic factors, even high-performing teams will need to regularly work through the cycle of formation and development. Great teams don’t just come together and perform at high levels: they require active investment, strong engagement, and support from leadership within organizations.