Before any team can coalesce and achieve a goal, it must establish a foundation of basic abilities. Teammates must know the common direction of their vision, the norms of their interaction, and the rules for resolving conflict. Without these basics in place, later growth will struggle as goals are unclear, exchanges are unproductive, and problems fester. Clarity in team roles, boundaries, mission, and values provides a platform for all future stages of development.
Budding teams test trust in every interaction. When exchanges are respectful and professional, teammates gradually become more connected. When everyone is accountable, psychological safety grows. In the absence of respect, connection, and accountability, the team will lack the tools needed to explore and innovate. Most of the team’s energy will be consumed in managing breaches of trust and safety. Exercising stewardship over team trust provides the fuel for experimentation, creativity, growth, and change.
Once the platform of development is secure, the team is ready to launch. The ambitious goals of the team vision are made possible by the commitment to team norms, mutual trust, diversity, and fearless exploration. This stage of a team’s development is full of risk. Discomfort is a healthy emotion when a team is out on a limb daring innovation or defining a best practice. The tendency to regress to safer, more comfortable interaction is normal but can be ignored if the team has reliably built the infrastructure of investment and trust during its infancy and childhood.
The team’s most extended phase of development is marked by the many cycles of performance navigated over its remaining lifespan. The key driver of performance is the management of change. It doesn’t matter how the change is defined. Teams celebrate success or mourn a loss. Teammates are promoted or demoted. Events, expected or unexpected, alter the landscape. Trusted colleagues come and go. Teammates behave and misbehave. Cycle after cycle, the team gets a new chance to re-anchor its mission, renegotiate differences, rebuild trust, refresh innovation, and return to a new phase of change.
In what stage is your team? The developmental law of epigenetics states that every stage of a team’s development inherits both the strengths and weaknesses of the previous stage. In other words, what you build (or fail to build) is delivered forward. It’s good practice to take a time-out periodically and assess where your team is at and why you are at that stage. Never stay stuck too long. Use your assessment results to steer the team’s next journey.