How to Implement Kanban for Smooth Group Development

Teamplay is the key to reaching your company’s goals in the shortest possible amount of time. Before being able to tap into their full potential, members of your different departments go through a lot of hurdles and conflicts. The process takes time and effort and, in the end, despite all the effort you may have put in to develop your team, it may still not reach its full capacity.

Bruce Tuckman’s theory of group development perfectly illustrates the process from forming a new team to the moment at which it starts to work in sync optimally. The American psychologist introduced the model in 1965 and built upon it in 1977 based on his observations. It is widely recognized in the world of business and considered by many as a great base for effective team building.

At first, the theory of group development included four stages:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing

In 1977, a fifth stage called “Аdjourning”, more widely regarded as “Mourning”, was added. According to Tuckman, the first four stages are necessary and inevitable stepping stones for any team in order to grow, face challenges, tackle problems, find solutions and deliver results effectively.


When a new team is created, the process of group development begins with the forming of the new relations network.

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This phase includes assigning responsibilities, building relationships and defining roles in the team. The members meet for the first time and learn about the opportunities and challenges ahead of them. The team agrees on the goals and starts to tackle the tasks at hand. At first, the members are confused about their roles and responsibilities and seek guidance from the manager, who plays a dominant role at this stage.

During forming, team members are friendly and seek collaboration between each other, but rely mostly on individual skills and past experience in order to fulfill their assignments and to find their place within the team.

When new members join an existing team, responsibilities shift and, even if the group already passed forming stage, it is most likely returned to the initial stage of the process for a brief period. An example of that is when a company grows and decides to hire a new person in their development team. He is meant to help the company in further improving one of its products.

At first, the person has only a vague idea of how the other members work or what exactly their responsibilities entail. The new addition enters the team with a great amount of enthusiasm and desire to prove himself. This is why he starts to take on task after task and not think much about whether this is his responsibility or someone else’s as he learns about the projects currently in progress for the team as a whole.

This may easily cause problems for the entire team because their work is affected by the change. For example, the code he writes may create a disparity in the architecture of the product, thus creating more work for the group and more problems to be fixed later. So, even if the team was previously in the performing phase, the process may have to begin again in order to assimilate the new person.

The forming stage may last from a few weeks to a few months depending on many factors such as management guidance, the experience of the team members, the structure of the work processes in the company, etc.

When your team gets past forming comes an even harder part of the process of group development– the storming phase.

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During this stage, team members get to know each other better, find common and differing characteristics between each other, causing the dynamics to begin shifting rapidly. They may start to challenge each other and even the management. At this stage, minor or major conflicts are very likely to occur, because people are confident that their opinions are taken into consideration and use the chance to voice them when they see someone who is slacking, trying to dominate or is working in a manner that does not meet their expectations.

This newly-acquired confidence may even result in them questioning some of the decisions made by their manager. The storming phase may become extremely turbulent as frustration or disagreements about goals, expectations, roles, and responsibilities are expressed openly.

In this phase, the role of the manager is mainly to act as a core for the team and guide them through the process of solving their differences. Managers must show tolerance for each member of the team and consider their input, but also need to assert authority to show insubordinate members that they are part of the team unit and not above it.

From the perspective of the new member of the development team, reaching the storming phase means he already knows his colleagues a bit better and is trying to adapt to the way his team has been working thus far. His professional habits and individual methods become apparent and may not sync with those of all of the others. He has his own way of doing things and it is not what some of the other members might expect from him. The clash of professional cultures between the members of the team might result in differences of opinion with the potential of slowing down the processes within the organization.

Some teams skip the storming phase and go directly from forming to norming. However, in most cases, this ends up creating even bigger problems for the teams in the long run. On the other hand, some teams never get past this stage and eventually disband because they are incapable of becoming effective. The transition from storming to norming is not always a smooth one and some teams go back and forth between the two phases a few times before moving forward.

With patience and proper guidance, the team eventually establishes itself in the norming stage.

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This is the phase when the team is nearing its full potential. Members recognize the common goal and understand that they can achieve it only by working together. Differences are already settled and each person accepts other members’ personal and professional traits. Each of them takes responsibility for the success of the team and has the ambition to reach the defined collective goals.

Although it sounds like everything is already perfect, there is a hidden danger in this stage. With the aim to avoid any kind of conflict which might take the team back to storming, they may opt to agree on controversial ideas. This may end up harming the larger organization of which they are part.

During norming, the manager should step back a bit and take up a participative role. She usually works towards empowering some individuals to make small decisions independently, which is the final step towards reaching the performing phase.

Meanwhile, in the development department, the newest member and his team have already settled their differences and have started working well together. He is able to work as effectively as the members who have been in the company for a longer period of time and, therefore, take on more responsibilities. This is when the ship hits the hidden rocks. As the manager has left the minor decisions to her team, they are eager to prove themselves to her and to their other teammates.

The team needs to visualize the work process, so they gather and talk about what technology should be used for this purpose. The manager decides to apply Kanban for visualization of the development process but leaves the choice of tool to her team. Half of them want to adopt Kanbanize and the other half insists upon using another tool. Looking for a way to avoid conflict, some of the members shift their position, seeing some potential in the other product and the whole team chooses the other tool.

In the end, the chosen software proves to have many bugs and is more of a burden than an asset to the team. So, the manager eventually decides to introduce Kanbanize to the work process. In this scenario, the desire to avoid conflict, a very common hidden danger in the norming phase, results in passive decision-making and, in turn, a waste of time and resources.

Finally, after going through forming, storming and norming, the team may reach the performing stage.

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This is the highest point of collaboration and effectiveness that any team can achieve, according to Tuckman. It is extremely challenging to arrive at this stage and most of the managers out there are unable to bring their teams to this stage of development.

During the performing phase, the team is motivated and knowledgeable. Members have achieved mastery at what they do and have the autonomy to handle even the most important of decisions without supervision. Sharing different opinions about the team goals or collaboration processes is acceptable and allowed as long as they are shared via the established channels.

The manager delegates the tasks to her team and participates in their completion equally as most of the decisions are made by the responsible members. The hierarchy becomes informal within the team and the manager is considered an equal by the other members.  This shared leadership style results in higher morale for the whole team, less stress and a desire to be at work showcased in different ways on the individual level. Usually, when this phase is reached, the manager might get promoted and receive new responsibilities. In many cases, she is replaced internally by one of the most prominent team members.

In the Adjourning, also known as Mourning, phase, the team is nearing the end of its mission and is getting close to being disbanded. Members feel uncertain about their future and slowly begin to lose motivation and detach. This stage is reached mostly by project-based teams and does not apply to all cases of group development.

Permanent teams or ones with new managers promoted internally may avoid this phase if changes in the process of the group are not drastic.

Building and maintaining a successful team is a long and bumpy road. Now, how would you feel if I told you that you can get through the first three stages faster and exponentially boost your chances of reaching the performing phase?

Every phase has its distinct problems. Solving them efficiently can guarantee a smooth progression to performing and even help you stay in that desired phase longer.

Optimizing the forming phase means tackling the hurdle presented by the lack of knowledge, of one’s team members and the project at hand, during this stage. Daily Stand-Up meetings are part of the Lean and Agile culture (you can check out the main differences between Kanban and Scrum here). The meetings are a great way to get to know your colleagues’ responsibilities and are held every morning for no more than 15 minutes during which every member shares his or her activities during the previous day and their plans for today.

Visualizing workflow within the team is another great way to shorten the transition from forming to storming. Using a physical Kanban board or digital Kanban board tools are options to be considered for this purpose. Your projects are laid out on the boards and all of the tasks your team members are working on can be found in the In Progress column. Furthermore, using the board, the manager can clearly distinguish the difference in the performance of the individual members and assist where needed.

In the storming phase, a manager’s ability to anticipate reasons for a potential argument and work around them is extremely valuable. For example, at Kanbanize, we organize weekly KPI meetings at which we report the performance and impact of the team for the past week. During those meetings, we discuss potential setbacks and ideas on how to make each process more effective. This practice can help any team in settling their differences and give the manager a clear idea of how the new team is collaborating. It will boost the sharing culture and put your team in the high-speed lane towards the norming phase.

When you get to norming, the manager needs visibility in the team process to make judgments about when to intervene if a complicated situation arises and prevent its escalation. A good way of providing this visibility is to create and distribute access to a map of your work in which larger tasks have been broken down into smaller pieces.

For example, if the manager is leading a development team and all of the members work on a different robust feature, the feature should be broken down into stages of development to make it easier to measure progress at a glance. When all of the work in progress is on the board, visibility comes naturally.

The biggest problem of the performing stage is that it is hard to remain there. In order to perform to its full potential, the team needs to have perfected all internal processes. The performing phase requires distribution of tasks among the members to be according to their roles, the collaboration between them to come naturally and for the quality of their work, as well as the speed at which they perform, to be as high as possible. One of the core principles of Kanban is to set work in progress limits meant to keep the team from getting overloaded with working on many tasks at once.

Usually, each In Progress column will allow for one task per person working on that board in order to ensure that he or she is not allowed to take on new assignments before completing ones that have been started. Not only will this boost the process speed by preventing multitasking, which has proven to be ineffective and slower, but it will also help prevent burnout among the team and even contribute to the decrease in the number of conflicts in the storming phase.

The forming of a new team or development of an existing one further is extremely hard, especially if you are a young manager, without considerable experience in a leadership position. The process from forming to performing is, in almost all cases, a turbulent one. However, eventually, it can be an extremely gratifying and significant journey towards a collective goal. It is up to you to choose how you are going to lead your team and where you want to go. One thing is certain  – you will aim for the top and we hope that after reading this you have learned something new to help you reach it.

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