Group Development

Learning Outcomes

  • Define successful group development

The story of every feel-good sports movie—from The Bad News Bears to Hoosiers to Miracle to The Mighty Ducks—is one about a group that came together clumsily and without much hope and went on to win big. As moviegoers, we sit in the darkened theater and root them on as they meet, fight, cry, learn about each other, and finally gain an understanding of how to work well as a single unit. And when we think all hope is lost, and then that last goal/point/home run is scored . . . well, pass the tissues, please.

Now, you may think, “Those aren’t good movies. They’re all the same!” And you’d be right. But it’s not because screenwriters set out to plagiarize a good idea. It’s because the Bad News Bears, the Hoosiers, the USA Hockey players and yes, even the Mighty Ducks, went through all the normal stages of group development, and their group development is the basis for their story.

Groups generally proceed through a sequence during their evolution, and that sequence is called the five-stage model.

The six stages of forming a group: pre-stage, where individuals are not linked; forming, where individuals are in a loose group; storming, where individuals are starting to form connections; norming, where individuals have formed a structure; performing, where all individuals are connected to one another; and adjourning, where connections are starting to dissolve. The process starts with Independence, at the norming and performing stages, individuals are dependent, and as the group adjourns, individuals return too independence.

Figure 1

In the pre-stage, you have a group of people who have never met and probably do not yet know they’re going to be a group.

But the minute they meet, either formally or informally, the members start to go through the forming stage. There’s a whole lot of uncertainty in the forming stage. The members of the group don’t necessarily know the group’s purpose, who their leader is, or what the structure of the group is.

The storming stage is one of intragroup conflict. Members are resistant to the constraints the group imposes on them individually. The group may attempt tasks and fail. There is likely even conflict over who’s the leader of the group.

All of a sudden, close relationships will start to develop between the group members, and a cohesive bond may start to form. A sense of camaraderie and purpose starts to develop. This is the norming stage. During the norming stage, the group will determine a correct set of behaviors that are expected of every group member, and group structure will solidify.

The fourth stage is performing. The structure of the group is fully accepted at this stage, and the group members are getting to know each other well, understanding how to work together to complete the task at hand. They are fully functional.

A permanent group will continue in the performing stage and stop there, but a temporary group, like a task force or a temporary committee, may proceed on to the adjourning stage. In the adjourning stage, the group moves their focus from performing to wrapping up tasks. Members bask in the accomplishments of the group, or become depressed over the loss of camaraderie and friendship they found within the group.

Click through the following interactive to learn more about how these groups form. We’ll follow the story of Itzel, who is forming a team. Pay attention to what happens as her team progresses.

The five-stage model also doesn’t account for organizational context. For instance, a group of three members of a cockpit crew can have never met but still jump immediately to high-level performance, due to the organizational context surrounding the tasks of a cockpit crew. Any group that needs a set of rules and tools, but can forgo the time it takes to make plans, allocate resources and determine roles is going to jump a few steps on the model.

The five-stage model also doesn’t seem to work well for temporary groups that face deadlines. These groups have their own set of sequences.

For instance, a committee of senior leaders and key organization members came together at a retail company to plan a large leadership event. The event was to be educational, and would drive home the point that their retail store leaders and their delivery of the customer’s shopping experience was key to future success. Educational breakout sessions would underscore that message. The event team, under that instruction, began working on the agenda and started to contact possible speakers.

At the same time, the company’s marketing department was getting ready to unleash a new brand strategy on the company. Originally set to be introduced in late spring, the event planning group saw an opportunity to unveil it with dramatic style at the leadership event. The senior leaders and key organization members got together again, and, after some discussion, entirely scrapped their original plans and started working on the best way to introduce their new brand to the group.

This is a classic case of punctuated equilibrium.

Punctuated equilibrium is a term borrowed from evolutionary science that states that once a species appears in a fossil record, it will be stable and show little change over its evolutionary history. The same is true for these temporary groups, who appear and become stable for the time it takes to complete their tasks. In this model, revolutionary change occurs in brief, punctuated bursts, generally catalyzed by a crisis or problem that breaks through the systemic inertia and shakes up the deep organizational structures in place. At this point, the organization or group has the opportunity to learn and create new structures that are better aligned with current realities. Whether the group does this is not guaranteed.

In sum, groups can repeatedly cycle through the storming and performing stages, with revolutionary change taking place during short transitional windows. For organizations and groups who understand that disruption, conflict, and chaos are inevitable in the life of a social system, these disruptions represent opportunities for innovation and creativity.

Practice Question


A chart of effort or capacity over time. Effort starts low and flat. Over a short period of time, effort spikes and dips several times, then remains flat and high until the goal is reached.

Figure 2.

In Figure 2, the blue line represents a group. You can see that the first meeting of the group sets the group’s direction. They move forward. Then, when half of their time is used up, a transition occurs that initiates major changes. This usually occurs at the same point in the calendar for all temporary groups. They reach the midpoint and, whether a member has been working for six hours or six months on the task, they all experience a kind of crisis around the impending deadline. The calendar heightens the members’ awareness, and they transition.

The transition is usually characterized by an abandoning of prior habits and an adoption of new perspectives. A revised direction is set. After the transition, a second phase of “inertia” happens, as the group completes its goal, usually with a sudden burst of energy at the end. They feel like their task is completed.

This is what happened to the event team at the retail organization. They got together with an initial set of plans and then, halfway through the process, abandoned their original plans for plans they’d not even considered the first time around. There was havoc and scrambling but, as the event planner commented soon after, “This seems right now. We were struggling a little bit to make the first plan a reality, but after the meeting last week, we’re really going to move forward with the right message.”

We understand now how a group develops, but to really understand how they work, we need to understand the structure of a group. What—or who—are the parts of the group that come together to storm, norm, and perform? We’ll talk about that next.


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