The Sauce Journey – "Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing"

Posted by Joe Alfaro in The Story of Sauce

A few years ago, while working elsewhere, I came upon a scene of two engineers literally screaming at each other over the top of their cubicle walls about some aspect of a project. "Oh good," I thought, "they've reached the storming stage, things can only get better from here."

As I talked about in my previous post, forming Scrum teams leads to emergent behavior on the part of individuals as they adjust to the new regime. The same is true of small teams; once formed, the way in which individuals interact with each other tends to undergo a sequence of changes as well. The behavioral scientist Bruce Tuckman labeled these stages as Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing. As unpleasant as the transitions from stage to stage might be, all teams must progress through them in order to reach the point where they are truly self-managing.

In the forming stage, teams cohere in relation to external influences, like goals and tasks, but tend to remain focused on themselves as individuals. This is reinforced in the way that we typically constitute technical teams, where each person is recruited for their individual technical strengths. Forming is typically a stage that is driven by intellectual and analytical considerations, since it focuses on defining the project, identifying tasks, and assigning team members who can fulfill them.

Storming and norming, in contrast, are about engaging the emotional intelligence of team members to bring them together as a team. In the storming stage, as Tuckman put it in his 1965 paper(1), "participants form opinions about the character and integrity of the other participants and feel compelled to voice these opinions if they find someone shirking responsibility or attempting to dominate. Sometimes participants question the actions or decision of the leader..." The storming stage can quite frankly be very upsetting, and the project will seem like a complete disaster in the midst of it. There is no way, however, to get to norming without it. For a team to become truly self-managing, they must learn how to surface conflict and disagreement, and resolve it among themselves. For this reason, it's critical for managers to continue to provide guidance in decision-making, but leave it up to the team members themselves to resolve conflict.

By the time teams have reached norming, they've developed the emotional intelligence that enables them to understand their team members better, and also helps them see themselves as a team rather than a collection of skills. Having passed through conflict and resolution, a sense of trust and even intimacy emerges. You can tell when a team has reached this phase by the way they behave during retrospectives - the introverts will begin to speak out, and the extroverts will begin to listen. Finally, when teams reach performing, you have full open communication, and the need for active management falls away.

High performing teams are those that have learned how to effectively communicate among themselves. In the end, Scrum, and all its rituals and practices, is about trying to create an environment where communication flourishes, rather than one which is governed by dictate. This environment doesn't just "happen," however; it emerges as individuals, and teams, go through a transformative process. Some teams may never get beyond storming, and teams that have progressed may regress as team dynamics change. The important thing to remember is that, on your own particular journey, you must learn to see conflict as a dynamic and potentially positive force, rather than as something to be avoided or nullified.

At the present moment, our teams at Sauce are in a mix of stages. Some teams that were together before we even started Scrum have seamlessly flowed into the norming stage and are well on their way to performing. New teams that were formed when we transitioned to Scrum have happily moved into the storming phase. This is especially the case in teams where we have people new to the company, and thus new to the culture. Other teams have gone back to the forming stage, because they have either been reconstituted or have acquired new members. One interesting observation is that we have many (15+) remote engineers, and contrary to intuition, these teams have moved more quickly into the storming and norming stages. My theory is that this is because emotional barriers are more easily crossed when not physically face to face, but I'll talk about this more in a future post on the challenges of global Scrum.

Joe Alfaro is VP of Engineering at Sauce Labs. This is the fifth post in a series dedicated to chronicling our journey to transform Sauce Labs from Engineering to DevOps. Start from the beginning and read the first post here, or read the next installment in the series. 

(1) "Tuckman's stages of group development - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia." 2005. 20 Jun. 2016

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