The Lifecycle of Groups

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Groups, like people, go through different stages in their development. It’s important to understand where a group is in that lifecycle before trying to shift that group’s behavior.

There’s been a lot of work trying to articulate the different stages of group development. I want to discuss four models here:

  • iScale Network Lifecycle and Assessment
  • Drexler / Sibbet Team Performance Model
  • MG Taylor Stages of an Enterprise
  • Bruce Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing (my model of choice)

Different models have different strengths and weaknesses, so it’s helpful to have these different perspectives. Exploring different models also offers clues as to what makes a good model.

Each of these models are oriented toward specific types of groups: networks, teams, and organizations. However, while the structures and strategies of actions might differ depending on the group, the stages more or less apply to all types of groups.

iScale Network Lifecycle and Assessment

The iScale Network Lifecycle and Assessment is the only model here that’s specific to networks. It defines four different stages:

  • Catalyzing
  • Launching
  • Enhancing and Expanding
  • Transforming or Transitioning

I like the network-specific language, such as “catalyzing,” in this model. I also like how it’s oriented as a cycle rather than as something that’s linear.

However, the language in the detail feels more top-down and organizational than it does bottom-up and emergent. What does, “Leadership group formulates an existing Theory of Change,” mean in the context of a bottom-up network without formal leadership? At a high-level at least, this is a good model for exploring the different lifecycles of large groups.

Drexler / Sibbet Team Performance Model

The Drexler / Sibbet Team Performance Model is probably the most directly actionable of the four models. It has seven stages with key questions associated with each stage:

  • Orientation (Why am I here?)
  • Trust Building (Who are you?)
  • Goal Clarification (What are we doing?)
  • Commitment (How will we do it?)
  • Implementation (Who does what, when, where?)
  • High Performance (Wow!)
  • Renewal (Why continue?)

I particularly like how Drexler and Sibbet define both positive and negative states for each stage and how the transitions are not linear. I also find it interesting how the visual “V” shape (creating / sustaining) parallels Theory U’s sensing / presencing model.

Thanks to its questions and states, this model serves as a great template for strategically thinking through the different stages of a group. However, this is a case where the model is less applicable toward large groups — especially networks — as it is toward its intended target of small teams. You are likely to have more overlap and ambiguity when trying to map these stages to a larger group.

MG Taylor’s Stages of an Enterprise

I’m partial to MG Taylor’s Stages of an Enterprise, as I consider both Matt and Gail Taylor mentors. Like the Drexler / Sibbet model, the MG Taylor model also has seven stages and nonlinear transitions.

What’s different is that, instead of offering a model, they’re offering a modeling language. In other words, they’re giving you tools to create models that map to the evolution of your specific group, and they’re offering patterns to look for within those models.

There are deep questions embedded in this model, which make it weighty and powerful as an exercise for groups. For example, what does the Y-axis represent here? Productivity? Performance? The good folks at MG Taylor don’t answer that question for you. They want you to answer it for yourself.

As with the Drexler / Sibbet model, the MG Taylor model is a powerful template for thinking through lifecycle and strategic issues. Its power lies in its complexity, which makes it more accurate, and it also makes it more difficult to comprehend.

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

Which brings me to my favorite group lifecycle model, Bruce Tuckman’s four stages of group development:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing

It’s catchy, which makes it memorable, but it’s also accurate and actionable, which makes it meaningful.

Of the four models described here, it’s the only one developed by a researcher rather than by consultants, which in turn means that it’s the only one that doesn’t have trademark or other IP associated with it. (The broad consultant practice of aggressively claiming IP over models such as these is a pet peeve of mine. This is a subject for another blog post.)

The simplicity of Tuckman’s model enables you to integrate it into more participatory exercises and thinking. You can ask groups which of these stages they think they’re in, and you can easily facilitate discussions about what it takes to move from one stage to another. Moreover, groups are more likely to remember the different stages.

  • robmcn

    Thank you for this interesting post. It probably should have been four posts. There is so much depth to the models you describe but your “lite” description leaves me wanting more. Maybe that’s part of your design for this blog?

    I also want to correct you on some of the statements you made about the Drexler Sibbet Team Performance Model. Russ Forrester, Allen Drexler, and David Sibbet have been researching this model for over 25 years. Each time a practitioner like myself conducts a Team Performance Workshop retreat our results are sent to Russ to add to the research pool. He continually researches validity and adjusts the Inventory on a regular basis. Over 10,000 teams have taken the survey and the research is quite extensive and ongoing.

    Early in my practice I also made use of Tuckman’s Model, but quickly found out it had little practical value in turning around teams in trouble. The Drexler Sibbet Team Performance enables a consultant to do live “Action Research” with a team to have the discussions they need to have relative to the Seven Stages represented in the model. I tend to think of them less as stages and more as lenses into the issues that need discussing, but are difficult to discuss on a team. Issues like trust, competence, power, leadership, membership, priorities, conflict become identifiable and discussable when led by a professionally trained consultant / facilitator.

    Helping a talented but stuck team turn around is one of the most enjoyable parts of my practice. My main tool for this work is and has been the Drexler Sibbet Team Performance Model. I also make use of it for large scale system wide change projects. For example: In Orientation we need to set the stage for the change we want to create. We also need to address the issue of trust across the organization and we have to work our way through goal clarification and set our priorities before we begin any implementation. As we proceed we need to check our work and focus on the left hand side of the model. If we do this with rigor and with integrity even our change effort can move into “High Performance.”

    I believe it was Kurt Lewin who said, There is nothing so practical as a good theory. As a practitioner I have to make my living based on models that really work. From my perspective, The Drexler Sibbet Team Performance Model is a model that has helped my clients immensely over time and enabled me to build a successful team intervention practice.

    • eekim

      @robmcn Thanks for your comment, Rob, and for the extensive description of the research underlying the Drexler / Sibbet work! This was meant as setup for a followup post on working with networks, but it was also a good excuse to get some ideas that have been hiding in my head for way too long so that I could start discussing them with others. Comments like yours are great motivation to share more and more often!

      The specific question I had in mind in writing this post was: What frameworks can I give to networks that will be meaningful and actionable? With a large-scale, bottoms-up network, you can’t take a consultant’s organizational approach of facilitating a process with a leadership team and key stakeholders, because there is no leadership team! (This is not entirely true, of course. There is no formal leadership team, but you can use tools such as social network analysis to identify informal leadership, and walk them through a similar process.)

      I’d love to hear more about your experiences with large-scale groups. What kind of groups were they? How large were they? How did scale affect your approach in working with them?

      As a sidenote (and I really need to write a followup blog post on this), I think the IP restrictions on models such as Drexler / Sibbet are a shame. I understand the reasoning behind them, but I don’t think they’re necessary. The world needs access to models and, more importantly, the wisdom underlying these models. Sharing them under a more liberal IP license would both benefit the people who created the work and the world at large.

      • robmcn

        Don’t under stand IP restrictions. I do know that Allen Drexler does not want everyone to have free access to the model, and the reason is quality control. He has a very rigorous process that requires certification to be able to use the model while working with teams. A “consultant” not versed in Action Research Methodology or trained in group process can do a lot of harm with a team in trouble. I look at it as an investment in my practice which I take very seriously. My clients make a significant investment in me, my techniques, and my tools when they use my expertise to turn around a team in trouble. Usually people’s jobs are at stake, sometimes the reputation of the company is at significant risk. Somethings just aren’t for everyone. @eekim

        For large scale system change you might want to take a closer look at the work of Dannemiller Tyson, Marv Weisbord, or Dick Axelrod. For work about full participation in large groups / networks, you might want to check out America Speaks and the work of Carolyn Lukensmeyer.

  • Yves Hanoulle


    I have bene using both the Tuckman model and the Drexel model. I was not aware of the IP limitations on the Drexel model, yet that explains why it’s the lesser known model.
    I learned about the Drexel model from people who found the tuckman model not actionable. So I was surprised to see you say it’s the most actionable model.
    Will you pleae explain how you use it?

    • Eugene Eric Kim

      Hi Yves,

      I didn’t say it was the “most” actionable, but I do think it’s actionable enough. The Drexler-Sibbet model has wonderful, explicit questions associated with it, but you can ask similar questions about groups that find themselves in different phases of the Tuckman model. The different stages also suggest what things you should do with a group. For example, if a large group is in the forming / norming stage, focusing too quickly on shared actions can actually be counter-productive.

      Hope this helps! Let me know if you have additional questions. And, I’d love to hear more about how you’re using these different models.


      • Yves Hanoulle

        hear is the right word: you can hear it here:

        • Eugene Eric Kim

          Yves, this was a wonderful video. You covered a lot of good ground, and I especially appreciated how interactive you made it, with lots of good natured humor. I also liked your lego images for the Tuckman model. :-) Thanks again for sharing!

          • Yves Hanoulle

            you are welcome.

            The lego images are comming from a presentation on team compensation.
            Vera Peeters a well known Belgium agile coach took them.

            I love doing presentations in the Trainig from teh back of teh room style. Something I only learned about after doing this presentation, so when I look back at this presentation, I am not happy with the interaction. Therefore it’s great to hear that feedback.
            Thank you.