The pandemic changed us, our views, what we value and how we work. We might not recognise all the changes and hang on in the hope of a return to something we loved, but we must make the best of it now. We should be aware that the change has affected our teams and us.
Whilst the Bruce Tuckman 1965 forming–storming–norming–performing model of group development is timeless. No one is likely to dissent that phases remain necessary and inevitable for a team to grow, face challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work, and deliver results.
However, because we have changed, so has the utility of the tools we apply that move us along the journey from forming to performing. Tools learnt and built in stable and certain times, have less applicability when we are faced with volatility and uncertainty.
The usefulness of tools we utilise that move us on the journey from forming to performing has changed.
More books and articles on “teams” and “leadership” exist than on almost all other management topics. However, forming teams today and how to get teams to perform is continually changing. Below is a new framework for the tool bag. Frameworks are just like a tradesperson supplementing their faithful and well-used wooden screwdriver with a sophisticated modern digital electronic driver. Both are needed, but the update can be faster and have more applications.
Because this is not a book on team building, an overly simplistic view of the Tuckman model is to recognise tensions and compromises in all new teams that must be addressed (storming.) When addressed, align the team to the reason this team exists (norming.) Finally, focus on the tasks that are delegated to the team (performing.) If only it were that simple or that quick!!! Critically team leadership helps the team realise, faster than it would otherwise, that this team has an identity, purpose and unique capabilities.
The focus of the Peak-Paradox framework in this context is to aid in the unpacking of the storming part in the process. How to unpick and identify different tensions and compromises is essential, and there are many tools for this when the markets are stable and certain. The Peak Paradox framework has the most value in this part of a team's journey, especially when everything is changing. Digital interactions, Gen Z and remote working mean we need new tools to supplement the existing ones.
The Peak Paradox framing makes us realise that teams and communities don’t naturally exist in all places equally. The purer the purpose that drives an individual, the less likely they can find others who will make a team and walk someone else's path. Yes, there are certain exceptions, but those are not normal.
Teams and communities don’t exist in all places equally.
In the diagram below. At Peak Paradox, where you try to optimise for everything, teams will not naturally exist as those in the team cannot agree on what they are optimising for. Debate, argument and hostility remain forever, with a team never escaping the forming stage. Indeed, forming a team with individuals who dwell at the two extremes (Peak Purpose and Peak Paradox) would appear to be futile. However, some of the best teams form when humans' only mission is to survive. Always an exception.
Note: these comments should not be confused with applying the Peak Paradox framework to leadership or decision-making - the focus here is purely on team storming.
A team can start weak, messy or strong - the descriptions of the areas on the chart above. They will all still follow the forming–storming–norming–performing model. These three areas give rise to where teams form and where they need to move to perform.
Weak teams. The reality, the individuals are not weak; the team is weak. These teams are made of very strong-minded individuals who know what they want, can lead themselves and know what to do but cannot work as a team at the outset. In this case, it is about unpacking what purpose they align to and how they would approach fulfilling the purpose this team has. This allows you to unpack what tensions and compromises they have to live with and how they will deal with them. The right question to ask each team member is, “Where do you naturally align on the four purposes?” Often these teams find they need to lose members or find a different leadership style to be able to move on.
Messy teams. This is because the individuals are messy, and we come with bias, history, experience and incentives. Messy teams are full of individuals who grasp compromise and tension and live with it every day but have been unable to find the right place for them. They are drawn to optimise for many things at the same time, they comprehend ambiguity, complexity, volatility and uncertainty. Messy teams can be easily guided by strong leadership, but often the cracks appear much later when an individual cannot live with the now-enforced compromises. The right question to ask each team member is, “What is the one thing you will not compromise over because it creates tension you cannot live with?”
Strong teams. Teams both start here and should come here to perform, as there is a balance between clarity of purpose, tensions and compromises - sufficient diversity of thought and experience means they can work through problems that occur on the journey the team travels in delivering.
The team who starts here will still go on the same F-S-N-P path and, depending on the alignment the team has (if well selected), can get to performing fast. A misaligned team that was selected because of the wrong criteria can fall apart and never get anywhere - this is due to the fact that the individuals oppose the purpose and optimisation of others in the team. The division is divisive. Strong starting teams are not always the route to the best outcome. The trick here is to use the Peak Paradox model to select diverse team members who will be able to cope with the demands and requirements other team members place on the group. The right question to ask is, “What will you compromise on to make another team member more successful?”
The teams who come to this area from a different starting place, messy or weak, may take time however, on that journey, some team members may have to be lost, and others may be transformed, but they will come to a strong alignment and cohesion by the time they are performing. This is a thing of beauty. When you get to norming, the right question is, “what sacrosanct thing can you compromise on to be part of the team?”
The value of the Peak Paradox framework to modern team building is it enables you to ask questions and plot where people are. This allows you to visualise gaps so you can work on how to bring a team together to perform. This is very different to culture and style analysis.
Why is this new? Because Gen-Z is much more opinionated and vocal on their purpose than previous generations, they are also far less likely to compromise to be in a team they don’t want to be in. Old tools still work, but new tools can help us get there faster.
When there is stability and certainty, teams can perform with a far narrower, more holistic and aligned view, principally because decision-making has more data, and history is a good predictor. There is a greater demand for variance, tension and compromise in teams during instability and uncertainty. Building teams that are resilient when all is changing demands a deeper understanding of what drives individuals and how they cope with new tensions and compromises. To do that, we need new tools to help leadership and team builders visualise what they have and where they need to be.
My suggestion to start this is that you
Plot where the team needs to be on the Peak Paradox map to deliver its objective.
Plot the individuals and determine if you have a team that can deliver or has too many tensions, which means compromise will not be sufficient to get them to perform.
Do it again before each review or every time a new member joins or leaves.
Question yourself if the current team is too narrow and aligned or too divergent and divisive.
None of this is easy, and for anyone who entered work place post-1990, this is different to other significant but localised market disruptions in 2001 and 2008.