Man With a Hammer

If you have enough agile practitioners in your social network, it’s almost certain that you will notice someone posting an article on team development. In majority of cases, it will be based on research done by Bruce Tuckman in the 1960s. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you surely must have heard of the four phases: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Let’s have a quick overview of them.

Forming is where it all begins. Someone, somewhere, decides that these specific people will form the new team. Everyone is holding themselves back. We don’t know the other person, don’t know their boundaries, experience, sense of humor – nothing. It makes all sense in the world to be careful.

But then, over time, you realize that you are more knowledgeable in some areas – and start to voice it. Others will sometimes disagree, which brings us to the storming phase. It is where, in the heat of series of small battles, borderlines are drawn. In time, everybody knows their place in the tribe.

Then, the team enters the norming phase. The dust of storming settles, we’re all starting to just get along with each other. We work as a team, doing whatever is expected from us.

Given favorable conditions – which are quite unlikely in corporate reality – the team may go even further. They raise the bar themselves, take ownership and accountability of their work. They become truly proud of what, how, and why they do. That’s performing, the mythical Holy Grail of every agile team leader, scrum master, manager – you name it.

As I said before, descriptions of these phases show up with staggering regularity. They are also taught on majority of team development trainings. It’s not really surprising – the approach is simple, straightforward, and foolproof.

There’s just one tiny detail that complicates things.

You see, Tuckman did his research on a very specific groups of people. Namely – self-help therapy groups. If you’ve ever seen Alcoholic Anonymous meeting in some movie – that’s about it. And I’ve never seen a team behaving in a similar way.

But wait, there’s more! As of this writing, there is no research whatsoever confirming Tuckman’s findings in a corporate environment. Not a single one. It does allow me to happily bash every single social article on it I see, but that’s not the point.

There’s an old saying, that to a man that only has a hammer, everything is like a nail. And if you know no other framework to quantify team development, you will see all the phases in practice. It’s not that they make sense. It’s just confirmation bias playing tricks on you.

If you’re only aware of four phases, you’ll only see them. Even though there’s no reason whatsoever to believe they make sense at work. The same goes to everything else. If of all things called agile you only know scrum, you will try applying it – regardless whether it makes sense or not.

Challenge yourself, your knowledge, and your assumptions. Let go of that damn hammer – there are other tools in your box. Just need to notice them.

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