Throw Out the Recipe

Published: December 6, 2022

After nearly five decades of ‘Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing’ theory, it’s time to throw out the recipe. Of course, the sequence makes sense. Your team comes together (you ‘form’). You experience some conflict (you ‘storm’). You set some ground rules (you ‘norm’). Amazing things happen (you ‘perform’). Because your team is populated by well-adjusted humans, everything goes as planned. Or it doesn't.

Let’s rewind and consider a more realistic scenario.

Forming: The team that comes together is rarely a ‘dream team.’ Most often we are forced to inherit our players or select from a pool of limited options. The chance to build a dream team from the ground up is amazing if the opportunity ever surfaces in your career, but it’s a rare event.

Storming: The thing about navigating conflict successfully is that both parties need to have mature conflict-resolution skills. These days, that’s unlikely. Both is the key word in this requirement. The inability to negotiate like an adult becomes the lowest common denominator. In most ‘storming’ situations, unresolved conflict gets baked into the team structure.

Norming: Ground rules ought to be guided by the things we learned in kindergarten, right? Play nice in the sandbox. Fix what you broke. Assume good intentions. Be open-minded. Check for understanding. Recognize that perspective is rooted in history and experience. (Alright, maybe some of these weren’t kindergarten lessons). Either way, teams are more likely to bake unhealthy norms (us vs. them politics) into their foundation, because it’s easier than hammering out professional rules of engagement.

Performing: The work of the team is mistakenly seen as an endpoint. The forming-storming-norming-performing sequence is, by its nature, linear. But relationships, families, teams, and organizations don’t evolve in linear sequences. They move forward in cycles. New talent is continually added and subtracted (forming). Differences are often renegotiated (storming). Rules of engagement are regularly recalibrated (norming). The deliverables of this stage of work are released many times over (performing).

The recipe (forming/storming/norming/performing – Bruce Tuckman 1965) is compelling. It’s organized, it’s simple, and it makes sense. Yet, most teams follow a trajectory that ignores the sequential instructions. The wrong players are sometimes added, and ill-advised toxins are kept employed despite their collateral damage. Ineffective problem-solving and unhealthy norms can be tolerated, therefore sanctioned. And worst of all, the product of this hobbled labor is deemed acceptable.

It’s time to throw out the rigid recipe. Each collection of humans deserves its own personalized path, using these essentials of kitchen etiquette:

  1. Select the right players.
  2. Embrace all perspectives.
  3. Establish a foundation of respect, collaboration, and ownership.
  4. Produce the work of that unique moment and then prepare to recalibrate. Your environment always changes a few steps ahead of your reaction.

When it comes to real life, you might want to rethink your ingredients.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.