What Startups Can Learn From Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing

About six weeks ago, I had a revelation about our program.

Two months into JuntoIII, we had several conversations and experiences that were challenging. An Apprentice questioned whether a particular Mentor was appropriate for their company. Another Mentor hadn’t shown up to two of three meetings. A repeat Instructor didn’t do nearly as well on this year’s evaluation scores compared to last year’s. And there were more such occurrences.

What was the revelation? That this was normal.

We had already completed two full cohorts lasting nine months. And in both of them, we experienced a number of similarly challenging moments. After all, when dozens of people come together as complete strangers, there are bound to be problems, right?

Well, it wasn’t that simple. Instead, I realized that Junto is built on group dynamics and teamwork. A startup’s leadership team participates in the program. The JuntoForum is a roundtable of peer entrepreneurs and leaders. Six JuntoMentors are matched with each company, five of whom function together as a MentorTeam. At the twelve JuntoClasses, all the leadership teams from all the companies come together. 

So with the omnipresence of group dynamics and teamwork comes the fact that our program is subject to the same stages of development that any group goes through: forming, storming, norming, and performing. This model of group development is known as Tuckman’s Teamwork Theory, conceived in 1965 by Bruce Tuckman, an educational psychologist. It remains widely used and followed, especially in business and therapy settings. And while we didn’t think about it during the design of the Junto curriculum, it’s become obvious to us that Tuckman’s Theory applies to our program.

Below is a description of each of the four stages followed by how we have observed Tuckman’s Theory applied to Junto. At the conclusion, I lay out what I believe other startup leadership teams can learn from this model and how they can use it proactively.

FORMING

The first stage of a group’s development is marked by “orientation, testing, and dependence.” The members get to know one another, watching and listening, as they learn what their task and objectives are. This stage is often marked by hope, anxiety, and curiosity and provides a baseline for the future development of the group.

At Junto, we’ve found that the first few weeks of the nine-month program is our Forming stage. Everyone is getting to know one another, and there’s a great deal of excitement, optimism, and energy. Some of the Apprentices, new Mentors, and new Instructors hold back a bit, watching and listening as they get comfortable in our community. People ask a lot of “how do we…?” questions, attend virtually every Junto session and social gathering, and have boundless energy.

STORMING

The second stage of Tuckman’s Theory is marked by “intragroup conflict” and an “emotional response to task demands”. Group members often respond with resistance to ideas, friction to peers, and rebelliousness to procedures. People are trying to understand how they fit into the grander scheme and may doubt whether the group will ever function.

At Junto, the Storming stage typically occurs during months two and three. This is when we’ve experienced the moments described in the opening of this post. Apprentices start feeling the impact of the time investment, much like when your muscles ache after pushing a workout into new territory, or express concern that they’re not leveraging the program to its potential.

Newer Mentors and Instructors may show mild frustration with the JuntoWay, such as how we start and end every session on time, ask that cell phones are put away, or don’t allow advice-giving but rely instead on shared experiences. And even seasoned Mentors may get frustrated with why the company they’re mentoring does things a certain way, or hasn’t thought about some very “obvious” strategies.

NORMING

In this stage, group members become comfortable expressing themselves openly yet with courtesy. Attentive listening becomes more commonplace, and a higher level of cohesiveness develops in the group. Individuals may begin to adopt specific roles in the group (leader, devil’s advocate, question-asker, etc.) and mutual respect tends to emerge.

During the fourth and fifth months, virtually everyone in the JuntoTribe settles into the routine. People have gotten to know one another, understand each other’s business, and begin to appreciate how the program operates. Apprentices take greater initiative and know what kinds of questions to ask, and Mentors are more comfortable being candid in meetings. It’s also during this stage that we begin hearing positive feedback about the program, and the impact it’s having on the companies and their teams.

PERFORMING

In the “final” stage of group development, there is an increasing amount of action being taken. While people settle into their functional roles, they also begin to see the flexibility among those roles, enabling members to swap temporarily or provide support to those areas in need. Simply put, groups in the Performing stage use their structure effectively to get things done.

At Junto, we’ve experienced that the companies enter this stage sometime in months 4-6 and then stay in it. They take the program even more seriously, increasingly implementing strategies and tactics they learn from the experiences of Mentors and Instructors. And in turn, Mentors and Instructors are also far more effective at sharing their past experiences, helping the companies fully optimize their JuntoExperience.

STARTUP LEADERSHIP & TUCKMAN’S THEORY

Startups are like roller coasters - lots of twists and turns and lots of ups and downs. This turbulence and volatility often lasts 2-5 years, if not more.

Through all of it, there are people coming and going, teams forming and breaking up, and people switching roles faster than business cards can be printed. As a result, I question how likely it is for teams in startups to even get to the norming, much less the performing, stage.

This is because I believe that Tuckman’s Team Theory requires a certain level of organizational stability. As much as the leadership of a startup company wants high performance from all of its teams, the mere fact that they have a fast-changing organization makes it difficult for that to happen (assuming that Tuckman’s Theory is valid, of course).

Now that we are aware of what happens at Junto with our program, here are the things we plan to do starting with our next cohort along with how other startup founders and leaders can apply Tuckman's Theory to their companies. 

  1. Tell teams what to expect. I would share Tuckman’s Theory with any and all workgroups so that they’re aware of such group dynamics. We have already decided that we’re going to include this topic in the orientation session we hold when a new cohort begins.

  2. Make the next stage the group’s next goal. Great salespeople stay focused on getting their prospect to the next stage in the sales funnel. They only worry about the close when it happens to be the next stage. In a similar fashion, startup CEOs and their C-level peers can encourage teams to simply get to the next stage while making progress as a team. Too often, I’ve experienced team leaders wanting the team to go straight from forming to performing. Again, assuming Tuckman’s Theory is valid, that just can’t happen.

  3. Embrace storming. Since we’re already planning to tell our companies what stages to expect, the awareness will already be there. By sharing that, we expect that we’ll have common language to discuss what’s actually happening, and that our goal is to get to the norming stage. Again, based on our experience, we know that will happen, making the storming stage less worrisome. In the case of other startups, where teams are made up of employees, I would do something similar: declare awareness, talk about the storming stage, and set the goal of norming. And because we know that it’s incredibly difficult to get there, given the turbulence and volatility of startup companies, I would position it more as a challenge than just a goal. And I would be very active in checking in with the team to hear specific examples of how it’s storming and how they plan to weather the stage.

In my view, the biggest challenge for any startup leader is to remain mindful of how difficult it is for teams to get to the norming and performing stages. Being aware of this process, and the theory upon which it's based, can help such entrepreneurs better manage expectations and, ultimately, help them become better leaders.