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  • Writer's pictureValentina Zanetti

Not Getting Stuck in the Team Norming Phase

How to help your team resist the temptation of comfort and traverse the team norming phase of their development, and reach their true potential.


Team norming

In the past weeks we've extensively discussed the team storming efforts and getting your team to stabilize. If you've achieved this with your team, this is great progress!


However, it's not the end of the road. The norming phase of team development is comfortable. It's steady, it's yielding results, there isn't much stress and not many challenges in this phase. That's why it's so tempting for all teams and their environment to stay in this phase and consider the results that the team is achieving in this phase sufficient. That's why it's important to always be aware that this is not your team's will reach its true potential.


However, don't rush the norming phase! Your team will need some time, whether it's a few weeks or months to stabilize and 'rest' from the friction and stress of storming. This phase is meant for your team to build on their successes. During this phase your team has the opportunity to build their own identity, their particular ways of working, and trust, respect and openness towards one another.


Below are some patterns and tactics that have worked for us in the past to avoid getting stuck in the norming phase of team development, which we're happy to share with you!


Recognizing the Team Norming Phase


The first and most important part is recognizing when your team has actually entered the norming phase. There isn't a specific time when teams reach this phase. Some may reach it weeks and some may storm for many months, so time is no indicator. Each team is different.


There are symptoms that you can watch out for to identify whether your team has reached this stage:


🔺 Steadier delivery and better quality

Your team has stabilized its delivery and is now delivering increments regularly and at a predictable rate. The quality of work is good, and maybe even great! Stakeholders are happier, planning is easier and your team can now be relied upon to deliver the necessary work on time.


🔺 Everyone is clear on their roles and team objectives

Everyone on your team is clear about their role and their responsibilities, and is acting accordingly. The team's short-term and long-term objectives are clear and they're familiar with the product they're developing, its purpose and objective, and the company mission and values. They're cooperating effectively and communication is clear and efficient.


🔺 Team members feel comfortable offering and receiving feedback

Your team members are more sure of themselves and their contributions. They're comfortable with giving feedback to their team members and stakeholders, and they're not defensive when they receive feedback themselves. Feedback is actioned upon and team members are open to learning, and are individually adapting to better suit the team dynamics and their goals and objectives.


As you can see, there are many benefits to this phase of team development, and it's easy to see why so many teams never grow from the norming to performing stages of their development. And while it's important to push your team to progress, it's also important to allow them to enjoy their achievements during this phase.


At this stage it's important to focus on strengthening your team and finding your team's specific ways of working and their identity. Below are just some of the things you should employ while your team is 'norming':

🔸 Celebrate your successes and your stabilization as a team

🔸 Provide plenty of learning opportunities for all team members

🔸 Start to monitor your team's performance more closely to set a baseline of their performance

🔸 Start to optimize your team processes, workflows and ways of working within your team

🔸 Promote idea generation and innovation and reward it when it happens

🔸 Facilitate the emergence of your team's microculture


Facilitating the Emergence of a Team Microculture


As mentioned previously, the norming stage of your team's development is important for strengthening your team and for allowing them to develop their own identity and ways of communicating and working together as a team.


This will include the emergence of your team's microculture. If you've ever worked with multiple teams, you already know that no two groups of people are the same. Each and every team has its own specific:

🔹 Energy and dynamic

🔹 Communication and collaboration style

🔹 Values and principles that they fall back on


Your team's microculture is possibly the most important aspect of your team's identity and one that will most assuredly affect their performance, the quality of their work and their ability to innovate and collaborate as a team. Also, your team's microculture has the potential to permeate to other teams and your entire organization, so it's a very important aspect of your team's growth.


However, team cultures can grow to be both healthy and toxic, just like organizational cultures. And while your organizational culture will inevitably influence your team's microculture, your team has the power and the possibility to protect itself, form a healthy microculture and to affect the organizational culture positively, perhaps even to a transformative level.


Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead, Ph.D., Cultural Anthropologist



So, how to facilitate the emergence of a healthy team microculture?

Here's just some of the techniques that have worked for us in the past:


🔸 Maintain and protect team boundaries

Your team needs to feel psychologically safe and secure with their teammates. This is only achieved through maintaining respectful communication and treating each team member's boundaries as the boundaries of the entire team. It means that potentially offensive language and behaviors should be addressed and corrected. It means allowing each team member to have a voice and be heard on the team. And it means respecting and trusting your team's projections and estimates about their own workloads.


🔸 Promote and example respect and honoring commitments

It's important to demonstrate dependable behavior, but also expect such behavior from your team members. Each team member should be aware that their work affects others on their team, and that their commitments to their team and respecting their time is of vital importance to the team as whole. Each team member should view themselves as part of a whole, rather than just an individual. Disrespecting team member's time and missing commitments should be addressed, either during one-on-one coaching or within the team, as they hold themselves accountable.


🔸 Promote a high level of transparency

During this phase, it's very important to keep a high level of transparency within the team. The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing, and vice-versa, so to speak. Various tools can be used to achieve this such as project management systems and documentation repositories, but even more so, fostering and exampling open and honest communication, even about difficulties and failure, is of key importance.


🔸 Encourage developing a team identity

Encouraging your team to talk freely and do things in their own specific way, that suits each of their own personality styles, is crucial for developing a team microculture. You might want to have your team define their specific set of values or principles they hold dear, you might want to encourage them to adopt a team name, or have them refine their ways of working together. It's important to allow them to communicate in a way that is natural to them. This is fertile ground for subsequent growth and a healthy way to handle conflicts down the road.


🔸 Encourage learning about one another and supporting each other outside of work

The people on your team will define your team's microculture. Their characters, aptitudes, their habits, the way they communicate, as well as their fears, previous trauma and experiences, these are all threads in the weave of your team's microculture. Team members will need to learn to communicate with one anther, rely on each other and help each other with their weaknesses. There is no better way to achieve this than to have people really get to know each other and be there for each other outside of work, too. It will give them clarity, familiarity and enable empathy and compassion, which is vital for building trust and courage within your team.


A team microculture is a delicate ecosystem that requires continuous attention and care. Coach your team members to tend to it and to always maintain a healthy attitude towards each other.


Driving from Team Norming to Team Performing


At a certain point, you'll want your team to grow out of the norming phase and grow into performing. But as mentioned earlier, the norming phase is important and it's not prudent to push your team to performing ahead of their natural time. This can take anywhere from weeks to months, so how do you know when your team is ready for the next challenge?


For this, it's important to be familiar with the comfort/learning/panic zones of dealing with change and changing environments:


Yerkes and Dodson's Law

In the norming phase, your team is in their comfort zone. They know what they're doing, they feel confident and they're performing well. This is indeed a good place to be, except for the fact that the comfort zone yields less and less results as more time without learning goes by. But if you push your team too soon and/or too much, without giving them the opportunity to learn at their pace, they will end up feeling stressed, worried, frightened and begin to act defensively, which in turn leads to conflict and dysfunction.


You want to keep your team dancing between their learning and comfort zones, thus expanding both areas. You want to provide them with challenges and provide a certain degree of mental friction to keep them interested and active, but you don't want to apply too much pressure. And it's the organization's responsibility, as well as the team's coach, to identify when your team is ready to transition to their performing phase.


These are some of the symptoms that your team is ready:

🔺 They're delivering in quality and at a predictable pace and rate, they're dependable and reliable and function well with stakeholders and other parts of the organization

🔺 They have established their own ways of communicating and working together, they have their own specific 'vibe' and 'energy', and their own team microculture is strongly emerging or has emerged already

🔺 They've already started to experiment with new knowledge, new technologies, they're exploring different options and tools, they're learning as individual professionals, and are seeking input from each other how to best satisfy business goals


Your team might even start to seem a bit bored with their day-to-day work. They've started to inquire and explore each other's roles, they're looking into improving their ways of working and experimenting with new methodologies all on their own, or suggesting improvements to processes and workflows to the organization.


What you'll notice from the above listed is that teams actually organically grow from norming to storming. It's not something that should be forced, as it can yield to negative stress, unnecessary pressure on the team and, ultimately, resentment and feelings of inadequacy. But you also need to recognize the signs when they're there, so your team doesn't get complacent and stuck in the norming phase.


It's the responsibility of the team coach and the organization to facilitate this growth and steer it in the right direction, both for the organization and for the team.


These are just some of things that have proven to be effective for us when driving our teams towards the performing phase:


🔸 Provide plenty of challenges and learning opportunities, even outside of team member roles. Give your team the time to experiment with new technologies, allow them to discuss the different aspects of their roles, and what each of them considers when working on a product. Encourage pollinating all sorts of knowledge, and provide internal and external learning sources, such as classes, certifications and workshops.


🔸 Allow bending and refining role boundaries and responsibilities between team members. Ask the frontend and backend developers for their input on designs, let them collaborate actively with the designer. Ask the QA specialist to contribute to defining requirements. Have the frontend and backend developers collaborate more closely. Try also pair and mob programming for the whole team, where everyone can see the process from start to finish and contribute ad hoc.


🔸 Encourage your team members to experiment with new knowledge and technologies. Give them access to information sources and assistance when trying something new. Create a safe environment for them to experiment in. But most of all, allow them the time to do so.


🔸 Start implementing creative and brainstorming exercises into your team sessions. Team retrospectives are fertile ground for this, so you should absolutely take advantage of that. But don't neglect Sprint Review sessions, think about approaching them from different angles, such as your stakeholders demoing the product to the developers. And try to get creative with your planning sessions. Use visual tools and flow diagrams to promote better understanding. Experiment with estimation tools and practices, include your whole team in the creative efforts.


🔸 Normalize failure and encourage learning from it. This is the last, but by no means the least important. This will prove to be the foundation on which your team's ability to innovate will reside on, so make sure you allow your team to fail, and to fail safely. Meaning, don't endeavor in experiments that are high-risk without a safety net and don't allow your team to perform experiments that can potentially destroy the whole product. But do allow them to experiment safely and frequently. Coach on techniques to learn from one's failures and coach your team to look at their mistakes as 'little treasures'. This is the basis of the Lean philosophy and it's widely used in a lot of successful companies such as Meta, Amazon, Netflix and other giants in the industry.


In this stage, the work done up to this point on fostering psychological safety within your team will prove of crucial importance. It will enable your team to safely experiment, safely fail and learn empirically.


Conclusions


The norming phase is a tempting phase of team development to remain in. It's low stress, highly predictable and generally comfortable for everyone involved. But it's not the true potential of your team and your organization.


Navigating from norming to storming can be very demanding however, because it needs to be handled with care and delicacy. Pressuring a team into performing too soon will yield resentment and negative stress, while waiting for too long will lead to a stale, pickled state of mind within the team.


Dealing with teams at this stage can become very tricky, and it's easy to undo all the hard work you've put in during forming and storming with your team.


If you need any guidance or advice, don't hesitate to reach out to us, we'd be happy to help! And don't forget to subscribe to our blog for more valuable goodies on growing amazing teams!



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