Change Trajectory

How does your organization experience change? Is it a disruptive force driving business outcomes? Or is it just disruptive? What can leaders do to make change a force for performance improvement?

The words forming, storming, norming and performing are part of the business speak (BS) thrown around every day. But what does this process and what can we do as leaders to use it to help us lead change?

A change is a shift from one set of circumstances to another. The changes we are discussing here apply to the changes leaders make in an effort to improve the performance of their organizations. The same principles apply whenever people are introduced to change. The first impact of change is disruption.  In change if we behave the same the outcome is likely different. Change requires us to alter our routine to obtain target results.

Let’s take the example of a team assigned to a project. The team has been delegated, the outcome, the resources, and given information the sponsor deemed relevant to the project.  

The forming stage begins. In initial team gatherings there is enthusiasm. Documents are reviewed and roles defined. Deliverables are planned and meetings scheduled. This is the forming stage. For the most part the things the team is doing are familiar to them. There is protocol for all of this. Everyone has participated in a project-planning meeting. Any disputes are low risk and quickly resolved. The honeymoon may go on for a period of time.  

Stress begins to build however as team members put effort in but find results are lagging. Issues arise.  Things slow down and team members may not seem as aligned as they were at the beginning of the project. The team is entering the storming phase.

Storming happens because the team finds that individuals do not share an understanding. The ground rules used in forming do not match the reality of execution. Storming is an individual reaction occurring in a team setting. Each individual has different experiences. These experiences influence how a person responds to the problems they are facing. The other challenge in storming is some team members may be asked to do something they have never done before. New problems have to be solved. Experts may find the context of the current project presents new challenges. Stress increases with the need to show progress. The cohesiveness of the team is tested. 

Things that seemed clear in the forming stage get muddied. Unanticipated problems arise. Competing solutions may arise. Resource needs may change. Some of the situations encountered could be anticipated and some could not. The point is the team does not have an agreed upon way of handling the pace and the context of the change. Frustration arises, as it seems the agreements made in the forming stage are being violated.

The key to getting through storming is promoting conflict. This may sound like the last thing that is needed. Don’t we need to reduce conflict and move ahead? Conflict is just different perspectives on the same situation. The team needs to share their perspectives. Leaders need to bring these perspectives out and allow the team to see the disconnections. This is a process, not a meeting. Leaders may need to coach individuals to have the courage to share their views. Dominant personalities may have to be tempered and less articulate team members afforded some patience in presenting their ideas. A leader encouraging conflict will get different perspectives out in front of the group. These perspectives allow the team to picture, state, hear, see and feel what others think. This in turn lets team members understand the differing perspectives.

Norming starts as the team members use the different perspectives to develop rules for working together. The rules may be unique to this situation with this set of the people. Standing beside the myth that conflict should be diminished is the myth that agreement must be achieved. Individuals should be encouraged not to abandon their perspectives. Instead team members should be encouraged to examine the evidence.  

As the team moves forward more information is brought forward. Team members should feel they can change positions as more evidence is assembled. Meanwhile the leader must obtain agreement on what the team will do going forward. Individuals with concerns may have to suspend their disbelief so the team can move ahead. Those with concerns should also know the team will set aside time to check on progress and make adjustments based on what is learned. New or modified metrics may emerge. The team begins to see progress. Things do not seem as hard as they did before.

The team transitions into performing as they establish a pattern of language and behavior that is understood by the team. They have gelled. The work moves ahead. Things do not seem as hard. The rate of progress increases.

Successful organizations need to keep changing. Leaders who try to move their teams from forming directly into performing may make that change more difficult. The value of the effort may be diminished. The team may perform, but will that be high performance? Will anything really change?

Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC