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Disadvantages of the Tuckman five stage model

The five-stage model also doesn’t account for organizational context

airline crew preparing to board the flight

For instance, a group of three members of a cockpit crew can have never met but still jump immediately to high-level performance, due to the organizational context surrounding the tasks of a cockpit crew. Any group that needs a set of rules and tools, but can forego the time it takes to make plans, allocate resources and determine roles is going to jump a few steps on the model.

The five-stage model also doesn’t seem to work well for temporary groups that face deadlines. These groups have their own set of sequences.

For instance, a committee of senior leaders and key organization members came together at a retail company to plan a large leadership event. The event was to be educational, and would drive home the point that their retail store leaders and their delivery of the customer’s shopping experience was key to future success. Educational breakout sessions would underscore that message. The event team, under that instruction, began working on the agenda and started to contact possible speakers.

At the same time, the company’s marketing department was getting ready to unleash a new brand strategy on the company. Originally set to be introduced in late spring, the event planning group saw an opportunity to unveil it with dramatic style at the leadership event. The senior leaders and key organization members got together again, and, after some discussion, entirely scrapped their original plans and started working on the best way to introduce their new brand to the group.

This is a classic case of punctuated equilibrium.

Punctuated equilibrium is a term borrowed from evolutionary science that states that once a species appears in a fossil record, it will be stable and show little change over its evolutionary history. The same is true for these temporary groups, who appear and become stable for the time it takes to complete their tasks. In this model, revolutionary change occurs in brief, punctuated bursts, generally catalyzed by a crisis or problem that breaks through the systemic inertia and shakes up the deep organizational structures in place. At this point, the organization or group has the opportunity to learn and create new structures that are better aligned with current realities. Whether the group does this is not guaranteed.

In summary, groups can repeatedly cycle through the storming and performing stages, with revolutionary change taking place during short transitional windows. For organizations and groups who understand that disruption, conflict, and chaos are inevitable in the life of a social system, these disruptions represent opportunities for innovation and creativity.

The blue line represents a group. You can see that the first meeting of the group sets the group’s direction. They move forward. Then, when half of their time is used up, a transition occurs that initiates major changes. 

the blue line represents a group. You can see that the first meeting of the group sets the group’s direction.

This usually occurs at the same point in the calendar for all temporary groups. They reach the midpoint and, whether a member has been working for six hours or six months on the task, they all experience a kind of crisis around the impending deadline. The calendar heightens the members’ awareness, and they transition.

The transition is usually characterized by an abandoning of prior habits and an adoption of new perspectives. A revised direction is set. After the transition, a second phase of “inertia” happens, as the group completes its goal, usually with a sudden burst of energy at the end. They feel like their task completed.

This is what happened to the event team at the retail organization. They got together with an initial set of plans and then, halfway through the process, abandoned their original plans for plans they’d not even considered the first time around. There was havoc and scrambling but, as the event planner commented soon after, “This seems right now. We were struggling a little bit to make the first plan a reality, but after the meeting last week, we’re really going to move forward with the right message.”

We understand now how a group develops, but to really understand how they work, we need to understand the structure of a group. What—or who—are the parts of the group that come together to storm, norm, and perform? We’ll talk about that in the next lesson.