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Whither Tuckman?

There’s a common model people seem to believe in implicitly, known as the Tuckman model, named for psychologist Bruce Tuckman, who published the idea in 1965. The idea is that all teams go through several distinct stages: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. You can probably guess what those stages are like based on their names. The model has been a mainstay of agile coaches for many years.

But I’ve had doubts about the Tuckman model for a long time. My personal experience has been that once people get used to working in a collaborative way, they can move to new teams without any friction.

I’m no psychologist, and this is only what people disparagingly call “anecdotal evidence,” but I suspect the Tuckman model reflects the characteristics of working in 20th-century organizational cultures where there was low psychological safety and where people had to compete against one another in a stack ranking performance assessment system in which “losers” were fired or laid off in an annual “reduction in force” (RIF) festival – festive in the sense of the festival of yopico in which Aztec priests cut the hearts out of living warriors to offer to the god, Huitzilopochtli, and then rolled their bodies down the steps of the pyramid, where they became <ahem> resources (don’t ask).

Under those conditions, is it any wonder people would exhibit low trust and be reluctant to show “weakness?” Is it any wonder they saw their co-workers as competitors and as threats to their families’ well-being and to their own career prospects?

But in contemporary organizations characterized by Toyota’s “respect for human-ness,” where whole-team collaboration is the norm, and where the priesthood of Human Resources does not hold as much sway as it may have done in ancient Tenochtitl├ín, I have not observed the Tuckman effect in action.

Instead, I’ve found that individuals join teams pretty easily, and immediately begin to work effectively and collaboratively together. At Code Freeze, that’s exactly what happened in the mobbing groups. People who had never heard of each other before immediately (or within a few minutes, worst case) started working effectively and collaboratively together, with respect and kindness, and moved through the programming exercises smoothly and without ego.

This, and not the Tuckman model, reflects people’s true nature, I think. The Tuckman thing may have been an effect of dysfunctional and inhumane organizations, rather than an innate and inevitable quality of working in teams.

Maybe that’s another benefit of mob programming. It lets you be human, instead of a machine part.