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A few weeks ago we were in Phoenix with the 14 new teams in the Pathways program that’s part of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation. This was our third time around with this part of the program, and we have the benefit of having watched 36 teams already go through the arduous task of designing a strategy for change on their campus.

All the teams reached the finish line – after about 5 hours of work over two days, they could present their strategy in 60 seconds or less, complete with the metrics they’ll use to determine success and an action plan for the next 90 days. It seemed easier compared to our experience with the first groups – maybe this group of teams was more focused, or maybe we’re getting better at guiding them.

Still, it wasn’t smooth sailing for all the teams. A few had trouble at one point or another, either agreeing or getting to specifics. Why was that? It would be easy to point at an obstructionist team member or the sometimes-glacial pace of academic change.

The cause is more fundamental – every team has a moment in which success seems elusive, and that’s a good thing. It’s part of what Bruce Tuckman put forward as a model of group development, in which every group has to go through four stages:

  • Forming: the group is just gathering and sizing up the task ahead; many haven’t worked together before and are just getting to know one another.
  • Storming: familiarity breeds contempt – or at least, differences in workstyle or opinion arise. It’s uncomfortable for everyone. Good leadership can keep the group focused on the desired strategic outcome(s), while still acknowledging each member’s feelings.
  • Norming: in this stage, the group accepts one another’s differences – and welcomes all points of view – but agrees that the work overrides personal preferences. In Strategic Doing, there’s a suggested set of “Rules of Civility” that groups can agree on as a set of norms for working together.
  • Performing: the group knows how to conduct itself and resolve any differences and can focus on the challenge of plotting a course for change.

Some teams get from forming to performing quickly, others take more time. The teams in Phoenix that struggled aren’t necessarily in danger of disintegrating – in fact, they were in just the right place to get help working through the “storming phase” – so they can move on to high performance.
Where is your team, and how can you move to performing?

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