In my last article, I talked about addressing projects as experiments using an Agile mindset. But how does this apply to the most essential asset of any project — people?

Starting a new project often involves assembling a new team. And building a team is a project in itself, perhaps the most critical. It’s a basic rule of the Agile Manifesto: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Building a team is the ultimate Agile project, as you have to continuously deliver value by enabling the team to work together and grow while at the same time investing in improving its internal processes. It’s hard work, and the process is not always straightforward, which is why I am giving you some real-life examples to guide you in your work environment.

Think of it as a marathon instead of a sprint. There are no cheap tricks, and every team is different as unique individuals compose teams. Tackling the group’s needs without looking at individuals is risky, as what works for many does not necessarily work for everyone.

This is why I will be looking into DiSC, an assessment tool used to profile individuals according to their most common behaviors (dominant, influent, compliant, supportive). While this method will help you get the bigger picture, remember that the only constant in life is change: different profiles will behave differently in different team phases.

So How Do We Get There?

There are two sets of motions that define a team: individual motivations and group interactions.

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman proposed a model for group development that has been foundational for many of the most recent advances in this field.

Bruce Tuckman's model for group development

In this model, there are four clear stages of group development that enable leaders to profile their teams while building development plans.

Let’s take a look at each of these phases to understand what they mean, the stage your team is in, and what you can do, as a leader, to help them reach the next level.

1. Forming

What it is:

  • A period during which the team is learning about their challenges and defining goals.

Typical observable behaviors:

  • Individuals are more independent (but not autonomous); without a sense of unity.
  • There’s a lack of information about the goals. More senior members raise the need for a more precise definition of things.

What to do:

  • Drive the definition of things. Why? With a new team looking at you for leadership, don't expect them to drive everything autonomously. Instead, promote and lead the events where you’ll be defining the team’s needs: share the vision, document the goals, define the processes.
  • Help them understand that to achieve performance, you’ll first need to discuss different opinions and that that’s okay as long as you do it in a healthy and trusting environment.

Profiles to keep an eye on:

  • Dominant and influential profiles are more energetic. They will move towards definition more autonomously and sometimes even motivate the team to define things (often in an imposing manner). Influential and compliant profiles easily agree with the decisions but need a boost of energy and motivation to drive definition.
  • Make the most of the first ones to speed things up, but keep things in an orderly fashion as they might easily go beyond what’s expected.
  • Address the second group with care by clearly explaining the needs for definition and change.

Real-life examples:

I was once placed in a “task force” team. These teams are usually volatile and represent a massive need for Forming. What does it mean to be a task force team? When will the team end? What is the problem we wanted to solve? How will we work? We tried to answer these questions in the first weeks of work, allocating time for discussion within the group.

Another example is my current situation. I manage a big team with many members, assets, and scope. The team will be split into two, and everyone agrees it will be good for us, but what will each team’s purpose be? How will we divide the assets? How about changes to our processes?

As a leader, this is a critical time where I have to step up and ensure I provide direction on those topics. I’m a dominant profile, so it is easy for me to forget about supportive and compliant types. To address this, I make sure I’m extra careful and talk to them in one-on-one meetings to ensure they are comfortable with changes.

2. Storming

What it is:

  • A period of intensive brainstorming and discussion in which the team debates everything and defines individual roles, as well as team processes.

Typical observable behaviors:

  • People voice their personal opinions.
  • Conflicts arise (hopefully healthy ones) while debating topics.
  • Demotivation appears if the conflict is not under control.

What to do:

  • Ensure everyone understands this is a normal process.
  • Moderate interactions to drive conflict in a healthy way.
  • Follow up on topics and help the team find solutions, as conflict management and problem-solving are two critical actions to move from the Storming to the Norming stage. Many groups never progress from this step, usually due to a lack of commitment (even when in disagreement) or failing to follow up on action items. As a leader, you should ensure things move forward even when there’s disagreement. Keep in mind that experimentation is healthy — register and track team action items.

Profiles to keep an eye on:

  • Dominant members will try to define things as they wish and will not respect others during the conflict. Confront them in one-on-one meetings. Don't let them take the drive alone.
  • Influential members will talk too much during the discussions and won’t let others voice their opinions. Make sure everyone has the chance to say something as supportive members will avoid speaking.
  • Center the meetings on the goal. Compliant members will focus on having all the facts and data. While that can boost confidence in decision-making, it can also delay it. Take advantage of compliant team members to gather information and understand you also need to be pragmatic and move fast, even when driving on insecure ground. It is okay to fail if you fail fast and learn from it.

Real-life examples:

Some years ago, I was working on an experimentation project as part of a team. We were all on board. In fact, we were so absorbed by that mindset that the team itself was an experiment. The result was awesome.

We took retrospectives very seriously and allocated as much time as possible to them, and ensured we acted on action items. We aimed to be as honest as possible with each other without ever being disrespectful. Sometimes people were angry in meetings. In others, they would cry. But you know what we never lacked? Friendship! That honesty and support led us to care so much about each other that we all ended up being friends and not just coworkers.

3. Norming

What it is:

  • A period of great alignment and acceptance during which the group reaches its goals by practicing excellent teamwork.

Typical observable behaviors:

  • The team references their goals when they speak.
  • Increased teamwork and communication.
  • Tolerance for specific behaviors in favor of a higher objective.

What to do:

  • Focus on helping the team improve its processes and become more effective and autonomous now that there are no distractions.
  • Delegate work and empower the team. Use your one-on-one moments to ensure widespread alignment.
  • Assess if conflict is not arising because people tolerate it or are afraid to speak their minds.

Profiles to keep an eye on:

  • Dominant and Influential members will get bored. Focus their energies on new projects and discovery phases. They like challenges, and this phase has few.
  • Take advantage of supportive members for execution and of compliant ones for planning.

Real-life examples:

We had a problem in the experimentation team I mentioned previously: the lack of skills to work in some of the required areas. At that time, we decided to invest in learning instead of adding new team members. Things went well, but we kept learning, learning, and learning, and we never reached the autonomy level one would get from a top expert. That is part of the Norming phase, and it’s not always good.

We had a defined learning process with proper competency matrix identification and learning time in this scenario, but it wasn't producing the right outcomes. Remember: norming is only useful if you don’t have problems to solve. Otherwise, you should invest in Storming.

4. Performing

What it is:

  • A period in which the team no longer struggles to reach the goals and is autonomous in decision-making.

Typical observable behaviors:

  • Teams regularly meet goals.
  • They show signs of high motivation.
  • There are rare road-blocking decisions that require leadership to unblock.

What to do:

  • Set the stage for the future by creating opportunities for new leadership. Be careful to predict changes that may lead the team to earlier stages, and plan ahead to tackle those.

Profiles to keep an eye on:

  • Dominant members will want to move toward leadership.
  • Influential members might receive appreciation for the team’s work, be sure to distribute it.
  • Compliant members offer significant success metrics for the initiative, while supportive ones focus entirely on execution.

Real-life examples:

It’s hard for me to say if I was ever in a team that reached this phase. And if I did, how long it lasted. Having a dominant profile, I’m all about learning new stuff and facing new challenges, so when the Norming and Performing phases take place, I generally start looking at other opportunities. But this is my personal example, not something I’d broadly suggest. Some people would rather have stability and continue supporting the team they helped build, which is entirely valid, and promoted in Scrum (stable, long-running teams present better performance due to predictability).

Keep on Changing and Learning

As you can see, there are many things to consider when talking about an individual's personality and how they behave in a group. It gets more complicated if you take into account how your leadership style is affected by the group. These two frameworks are great starting points for any new leader, but if you’re thinking of building a career, the one thing to learn is that you’ll have to keep on learning, as people keep on changing.

Starting a new project? Interested in building a team? Take a quick look into OutSystems awesome culture and The Small Book of the Few Big Rules, and check how to build your own OutSystems team. Oh, did I mention you can try it out for free?