Identify your project management team’s level of development and facilitate it to success


We have all heard about “forming, storming, norming, and performing and even adjourning and reforming” the stages of group development. But how many of you know what behaviors manifest themselves in each stage? What should you as Project Manager do or not do during these phases regarding the behaviors that you encounter to respond effectively and move the team along to achieve project excellence? This paper explores the dynamics of group development and gives the PM the insights necessary to identify the stages of group development that his or her team will go trough and allow the PM to understand where a group might be at a given time. It offers some courses of action that will strengthen the team and move it forward. This paper also explores some very powerful facilitation techniques that will enable the PM to move from “directing” the team to “facilitating” the team to maximize performance and achieve team goals.

Teams do go through stages: whether you accept Shutz's Firo-B theory, Tuckman's theory of group development or Dr. Tubb's approach, almost all the experts of the social influence process believe that some behaviors inevitably happen when people come together (Tubbs, 1995). As a PM it would be helpful to know that there are pretty common patterns of behavior so you can deal with them effectively. Not sure? Watch the pick-up game of basketball as played in most gyms or schoolyards. The new comers waiting to win the court kind of mull around making small talk waiting for the ongoing game to finish up. When it's their turn to play they can almost come to blows determining who does what to whom to win the game. If they last long enough, they will iron out their differences and start to play more effectively. When they realize some success, they not only feel good about the outcome but they also feel good about themselves (the team). They are happy to be together and even feel sad when the game or even the day's games are over. Project teams are not very different, and you as the leader should stay tuned to the team's level of growth.

When the team members assemble for the first time and engage in small talk, asking questions about the weather, current events, scandals and why do they think they are here in the first place… what should you the PM do?

Well the PM might try to evaluate where the group is in its process of group development. For simplicity sake let's go back to the earliest work of Thelen and Dickman who in 1949 identified the phases of group development as: (1) forming, (2) conflict, (3) har-mony, and (4) productivity. These categories do not rhyme as well as Tuckman's “forming, storming, norming, and performing” and they do not address the underlying needs the way Schutz's “inclusion, control, and affection,” approach does, but they are rather descriptive of what frequently happens in project management endeavors. So these are the terms I will use:

Phase One. Forming generally means coming together at the beginning of the process. Team members might engage in low risk small talk about the weather, local news, and personal interests: “Where are you from? Is this rain ever going to stop? How did you wind up on this project? How about those Lakers?” Behaviors are directed to establishing some basic rather minimal relationship and to determining whether the members want to be in this particular group or not. Let's check each other out before we take on this project.

So what is the PM to do during the forming phase? Tell them to shut up and get to work? Allow a little banter or give them some helpful information?? Well the small talk is characteristic of early group development and most PM's would do well to allow a little of it at first … then it would be appropriate to provide clarifying information. It might be appropriate to even anticipate the uneasiness that goes with starting up a new team and sponsor a friendly pizza party. It might surprise some to learn that many team leaders may undertake a project without ever thinking about social orientation or group development. The effective PM not only knows about the value of a good kick-off meeting that PM knows that it should be designed to build relationships before the project work actually begins.

Phase Two. During the conflict phase dedicated team members might have strong opinions about how things should be done and by whom. There will probably be some conflict surfacing. How should the PM deal with this? Well, the PM might start by realizing that this kind of conflict is fairly typical with newly formed teams and that the team has probably successfully completed Phase 1 and is moving forward. In the old days conflict was regarded as something to be avoided at all costs; now modern leaders look on it as a part of life that offers both downsides and opportunities. Sure we think of yelling, screaming, blows, divorce and death and destruction as negatives, but some conflict is healthy. It actually brings out new ideas, helps us see things in new ways and can make us a better project management team. When we get all the ideas out on the table and we consider the different procedures that are open to us, chances are that we will adopt a course of action that will be more beneficial than one that was not fully discussed. In another dimension the conflict behaviors help team members to sort out where they fit on the team, the kind of role they can play and the contribution they can make. There are different levels of leadership in groups and during this phase members get a feel for where they fit into the group.

What else might the PM do during the conflict stage? The PM can hold things together by listening to all sides of the arguments, by allowing a reasonable amount of venting, and by helping to clarify requirements, methods and roles. He or she can make sure that everyone knows what is expected in the scope. The PM can decide whether it is appropriate to compromise, collaborate, avoid the issue for a while, or to confront. Ultimately, he or she can crack the whip or move the team beyond the conflict with inspirational leadership and wise decision-making.

Phase Three. Harmony behaviors might not be what they seem, so PMs must pay special attention to this period of calm. Most of us prefer calm to chaos, but we should not see the cohesion that harmony brings just because we want it to be there. We must take steps, e.g., talking to members privately, asking about a usually high (cold?) level of politeness, checking to see that a particular issue has been resolved … to make sure that the team is settling in and working together comfortably.

Let's say that the conflict, which characterized the second phase, has been resolved effectively and that resistance has been successfully managed and that team cohesiveness is growing. What should the PM do? Go to a house of worship and give thanks to God? That would be OK; especially, if it meant that the PM recognized the harmonious state accurately, and agreed with the standards and the new roles adopted. The PM should reinforce the positive behaviors he notes and should praise the open stating of opinions, the crisp execution of roles and the adherence to agreed-upon procedures. The PM should be on the look out for events that may push the team backward and deal with them as openly, astutely, and as quickly as possible.

Phase Four. Productivity behaviors delight team members and must be nurtured by the PM. In phase four, morale is high; tasks are getting done on time or even ahead of schedule. The team is actually within budget. Members know they are good and freely congratulate each other for the things they do well. They have overcome obstacles individually and as a team. They may even be having fun at their work and can joke about it. How does the PM keep it going?

Here are some ideas on how the PM might to do this. The PM can give lots of “thank-you's,” publicly and privately. He or she can initiate celebrations large and small and provide the rewards. The PM should consider directing less and using the facilitating style more. The PM's goal is to move the team toward greater ownership and productivity. The shift begins in the norming stage with reinforcement in the performing stage. How does the PM move to the facilitating mode?

To facilitate means “to make easy” and in modern day application facilitation means using a set of skills to make a group's or team's work easier. The PM can do a lot to promote the team. He or she can get the right resources, time talent and money, but team meetings provide a beautiful stage to apply and demonstrate this shift in style. Throughout meetings both formal and informal the PM can use a number of tools and techniques to make things easier for the team.

Techniques include the pregnant pause, the redirected question, the request for relevance, the powerful “I” message and many other techniques that will empower the team members and the team, while allowing the PM to pursue higher-level activities (net-working, PR) to benefit the team.

When a PM tells someone in a meeting “You loused up the status report!” The “you” in the phrase burns like acid and attacks the individual. It puts the individual on the defensive and has a tendency to destroy the power that the person has enjoyed as a member of the high-powered team that has been created. It's a statement that one would readily ascribe to the directing style. By simply saying, “I don't understand the figures in part two of the status report,” the PM shifts the emphasis away from the status report writer to himself in a way that leaves the door open to explanation, while preserving the individual's power. That is the power of a statement that begins with the personal pronoun “I.” It facilitates communication.

By allowing a team member the opportunity to ex plain the relevance of his or her comment to the topic at hand, we are giving the person the chance to communicate an idea whose merit can be evaluated. When an individual asks a question that he or she might know the answer to or be in a position to think her way to the answer, it is powerful to redirect that question to the asker: “Pam, Do you think that we can capture 20% of market share?”

When someone in a meeting raises an issue, the directing PM feels compelled to respond. This has a tendency to stifle the remarks of others. The facilitating PM allows up to 30 seconds (it feels like an eternity) to give other team members a chance to respond without coaxing. If this does not get a response, the skilled facilitator scans the group to see if someone's face is saying, “I am ready to talk.” An affirmative nod or simple mentioning of the person's name is usually enough.

Brainstorming is another technique that keeps the empowered team on track. Unfortunately, it isn't done correctly in most places. The best PM's use a very structured approach to get the best results and to give everyone the feeling that his ideas were considered. The fact that a brainstorming technique is going to be used to “develop ways to reward the team,” is announced. Then participants are given a few minutes to jot down their “ways to reward.” A recorder steps forward to capture everyone's ideas as fast as they can be shouted out and written down where all can see. No one is allowed to bad mouth an idea or criticize it in any way. Participants are encouraged to add to an idea, modify an idea, expand an idea's application or even offer an opposite idea. The process continues until there are no more ideas forthcoming. Use the pregnant pause to make sure and then discuss the ones that seem most appropriate.

These are some facilitating techniques that will assist the PM in the facilitating mode and will keep the high performing team operating at peak productivity. PM's must constantly assess the level the team is functioning at and be prepared to step in with an appropriate response whenever the team regresses. Yes, teams regress if not nurtured and cared for as discussed. Sometimes they slip because of outside influences and the PM must act.

Ultimately, the PM will have to deal with the breakup of the team—being aware of everything from resistance to joy. It is up to the PM to facilitate the team to a successful conclusion using some of these helpful hints. An empowered team performing at a high level of productivity will help the PM to accomplish this task successfully.


Tubbs, Stewart L. 1995. A Systems Approach to Small Group Interaction. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Additional Information = I use examples exercises and handouts to illustrate my points in a lighthearted interactive way. All projects use teams these days. My presentation on “Re-igniting a Stalled Project …” was well received at PMI 2001. This seminar could fit in the education, professional development, communication or basics track.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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