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Finding Our Way In Industry To The ‘New Normal’ How Tuckman’s Team Theory Rings True for COVID-19


Finding Our Way In Industry To The ‘New Normal’ How Tuckman’s Team Theory Rings True for COVID-19

The author: Joanna Stephenson, a graduate of UMIST and having formerly worked at Dow Chemical, Sun Chemical and LINPAC Group,  is Founder of Women In Packaging UK, a Director of the European Flexographic Industry Association – the key print technology used in packaging - A Non Executive Director of Cornelius Group - a leading specialty chemical distributor in the UK - and Managing Director of PHD Marketing Ltd, a specialist marketing & communications agency supporting the international Print, Packaging and Life Sciences Sectors. 

Finding Our Way In Industry To The ‘New Normal’

How Tuckman’s Team Theory Rings True for COVID-19

Developed in 1965 by psychologist Bruce Tuckman, Team theory suggests that most teams follow a consistent path from the point they are first assembled to a time when they become a highly proficient and effective organisation. This path has four distinct phases – Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.

As we find ourselves in industry faced with unprecedented change, challenge and volatility, it’s clear that this journey of chaos to coping stands true for industry, not just teams inside of companies and institutions. 

In Tuckman’s theory, the Forming stage sees team members brought together and acting with appropriate behaviours to greet, connect and form initial relationships. They seek clear direction from a leader and formal processes and frameworks are not established yet, so the phase can be quite short. 

At best, business leaders with foresight began considering potential impacts on their supply chains in Asia, governments began monitoring the situation and consumers continued to steadily watch, assuming it would be brought under control; all polite acceptance reminiscent of the individuals meeting together to form a team but also seeking absent leadership.

Next, the Storming stage begins. At this stage in an organisation, team members are provided with clarity on their roles and objectives; what is expected of them and what they are tasked to achieve. Processes and procedures come into full effect and the team can begin to feel frustrated and overwhelmed by the work expectations, as reality hits. Individual team members become stressed by how much there is to accomplish and can begin to have doubts or voice concern over the leadership of the group.

As we’re still early in the journey, team members begin to form opinions on what is working and what (or who) is not. Often jockeying for position, team members seek assurances of their status or roles and even challenge the leader’s authority. Conflict can naturally follow, and a great deal of management and oversight is required by the leadership to ensure processes are followed and the work is getting completed.

Are you starting to recognise the behaviours in your business and UK Government in this phase? As we moved into storming in the UK in mid-March, we realised the enormity of the challenge ahead of us. For consumers, panic ensued and stocking up on essential goods ran supply chains dry. Asserting their natural role of protecting themselves and their loved ones, shoppers quietly added extra goods to their regular shops, or went for all-out protection, hoarding essential items, among many other staples.

Businesses moved to escalate processes to protect supply chains, people and profitability. Extra shifts are employed to cope with volatile demand, employees are moved out to remote working, and numerous measures are implemented to drive health, safety and wellbeing amongst workforces. Leaders are working day and night to drive business continuity, respond to new internal and external environment challenges, and simply ‘keep the wheels on’ while the Storming phase is in full throttle

Government has now stepped in. Rather than advice and guidance, the command and control button is pressed. This is typical of the Storming phase where conflict can be out of control and strict oversight and management is needed to keep the situation in abeyance. Mandatory rules for isolation, home working and essential travel only are implemented and voices of dissent, that have been building through the Storming phase, are now silenced as the team – UK PLC – begins to move onwards to its Norming phase.

In Tuckman’s Team theory, Norming involves the team beginning to work effectively. The order is clear, the team is established, and processes and workflows begin to solidify. Each team member has clear understanding of their role, and the strengths and weaknesses of others, and begin to support each other, providing peer reviews and constructive, not critical, observations on how to improve. At this point, the team is still not optimised. It is following processes and procedures but may not be working as efficiently as it can. It still needs oversight but significantly less than in the Storming phase. 

So, what does this tell us about what the next few months could look like if Tuckman’s theory still applies? First, we see overwhelming evidence of a supportive consumer culture emerging in the UK. Groups of communities are coming virtually together to create services to support those in need. Take the ‘Clap for NHS’ Campaign as a classic example of the UK coming together under one team spirit; identifying that if we work together, we can succeed. Consumer panic buying is starting to slow, adherence to isolation is improving, and adoption of new lifestyle choices are emerging. People are seeking digital parties, connecting virtually to share positive chatter, learning to live differently but importantly, with little complaint.

Government, sitting somewhere between Storming and Norming currently, has had as much critical acclaim as criticism in recent days. Where scepticism and complaint lay in the slower approach taken in initially tackling the crisis, at March 27, the Government is generally lauded for its calm, firm and even Churchillian way of tackling the crisis and making the resources available to those who need them most.

For business, processes and workflows are working but challenged. Essential businesses recognise their roles and non-essential businesses are closing down; many often unnecessarily but fearing an ability to manage health and safety appropriately, are taking the safest route to protect their employees. 

Leaders are learning to reach out in new and different ways. Utilising digital channels to source new materials, skills, products and tools, adopting new leadership behaviours to manage remote workers, or finding new ways of doing things previously taken for granted. New Crisis Teams are emerging to manage the day to day, recognising the overload placed on certain individuals and learning to adapt to daily volatility. Product ranges are being streamlined, supply chains moved, processes adapted, even whole businesses switching to produce critical items in this period of unrecognisable crisis. 

Typical of the Norming Phase, the situation is not optimised. Fluidity in reaction to change is still stifled and of course, the critical challenge of this healthcare crisis in stymieing individuals to physically work, places inordinate constraints on the team – UK PLC – to operate to its full capacity. 

So, can we reach the Performing Stage in the UK? Can we develop the skills, behaviours, processes and frameworks we need to operate efficiently, despite the mounting challenges placed upon us as a nation? I would propose yes. Tuckman’s theory has stood up so far, we just need to keep applying the logic, as long as we can.

In the Performing Phase, the team has a solid understanding of its situation, roles and protocols. It also follows them efficiently. It is able to respond to change and has become efficient and productive as it consistently reaches its goals. Notably at this stage, if a team member drops out, it has little impact on the rest of the team’s ability to perform. The team leader has learned to delegate to other team members with confidence and has the ability to provide minimal oversight, freeing it up to focus on what is coming next; critical when we’re considering the mountain the UK now has to climb.

For consumers, this means maintaining the support structures that keep isolated individuals safe both physically and mentally. Not making grand gestures for a short period and stepping back when they’ve had enough. It’s recognising we could be in for a long haul and everyone has to commit to support each other. It also means continuing to applaud Government efforts and constructively criticising to positively encourage change if the policies are not attuned to the national sentiment. 

For Government, the Performing phase means maintaining oversight but learning to delegate – the NHS, the army, local Government taking on roles to free Central Government up to focus on what the future might bring. Identifying when the time is right, post peak, to release the strict controls and enable consumers to feel free again.

And for business, the change is potentially permanent. Business has learned new skills, new ways of working, new tools and procedures that are not necessarily going to drop away once this crisis passes. If consumers are quickly adapting to more limited product ranges, why were we so focussed on delivering SKU complexity each year to capture market share. Can we run a more successful business with a more streamlined approach that actually makes us more money? Are we happy to leave those workers who prefer the remote working process at home? Can we provide the flexible working approach that we’re rebuffed in recent years? Am I more confident of buying competitively onshore than I was previously, having been let down during this drawn out situation? These are the questions that tomorrow’s ‘new normal’ is going to bring. 

Shoppers are clearly moving online, communities are coming together – despite social distancing being observed – and businesses are reaching out and connecting with new suppliers, partners and tools that they would never have previously considered. The ‘new normal’ - the performing UK PLC team - might just look a little different by the end of 2020 if Tuckman’s theory stands true.