The Tuckman Ladder identifies and defines five key stages of team development that all project managers and team leaders should know and understand.
Understanding the Tuckman Ladder can help improve your leadership skills, as you’ll gain clearer insight into what’s going on with your teams and how you can help them progress.
It is also an important topic to master if you’re preparing to take the PMP Exam and earn your project management certification.
Project managers in particular should become familiar with the Tuckman Ladder, especially because the Project Management Institute’s PMBOK Guide (Project Management Body of Knowledge) references it in Project Team Development Models section.
So you know the Tuckman Ladder is likely to show up on the PMP Exam!
Regardless of whether you’re a project manager, you’ll be a much better team leader once you have a solid grasp of the Tuckman Ladder’s five stages, as well as the elements of each stage.
Who Created the Tuckman Ladder?
The Tuckman Ladder model was created by Bruce Tuckman in 1965.
Tuckman was an American psychologist who died in 2016. He was best known for his work in the field of group dynamics, and he also wrote several books on the subject.
Tuckman called his concept “Tuckman’s stages of group development.” He postulated that each stage has its own challenges and objectives that need to be met in order for the team to move on to the next stage.
It’s worth noting that Tuckman actually identified four stages of team development, with the fifth and final stage being added by others later.
But since the PMBOK Guide defines all five stages, you should give proper attention to all five.
Identifying the Tuckman Ladder’s 5 Stages
The five stages of team development that you should remember for the PMP Exam are:
Here are the key components of each stage of the Tuckman Ladder:
This is the first stage, when team members might be meeting for the first time, learning about the project goals and tackling the initial tasks. As the individuals are getting to know each other and learning their roles, they are often on their best behavior during this stage and focused primarily on themselves. The team is also establishing ground rules and procedures.
If Forming is the stage when individuals are often on their best behavior, Storming is the stage when people start getting a bit more real. The beginnings of group cohesiveness can often be seen in this stage, when individuals start gaining each other’s trust and voicing opinions. But this is also the stage when team members begin to assert themselves and their ideas. Conflict can arise during this stage, as roles and hierarchy are sorted out, but it is necessary in order for the team to move on
Norming is the third stage of the Tuckman Ladder. In this stage, team members start accepting their roles and working toward the shared goal of the team. Individuals begin working together more cohesively, and conflicts start resolving themselves. A key element of this stage is that individuals begin accepting their team members.
At this stage, team members are often self-directed, able to make decisions amongst themselves without requiring constant supervision. It’s important to note that this stage isn’t necessarily free of conflict and issue, nor is the project manager hands-off entirely, but in a general sense, the team is performing at its highest level, is able to work as a cohesive unit, and it achieving its objectives.
As the name implies, this is the stage when team members are finalizing tasks, and the project as a whole, and the team is being released to work on other projects.
PMBOK Guide Interpretations of the Tuckman Ladder
There are two additional points to understand about the Tuckman Ladder, based on the PMBOK Guide’s interpretation, before you take the PMP Exam:
1. The Tuckman Ladder’s Stages Are Not Linear
Bruce Tuckman’s original articulation of the five stages intended for them to be linear; that is, only when the team completed the first stage (Forming), could it move onto the second stage (Storming), and so on.
However, the PMBOK Guide notes that project teams, in particular, tend to move back and forth between the stages of team development.
So in theory, a team could progress from the second stage, Storming, to the third stage, Norming, and then through some circumstance, find itself back in the Storming stage before eventually reaching Performing.
2. Not All Project Teams Reach Stages 3 and 4
The PMBOK Guide notes that some project teams never actually reach the fourth stage, Performing, where the team has been together long enough to function as a cohesive and mostly self-directed unit.
In addition, PMI says that some teams don’t even get to the third stage, Norming.
Both realities are entirely possible. Some projects are small enough that team members don’t work together long enough to really establish their places on the team, let alone operate as an efficient, mature unit.
Other circumstances, including geographically dispersed teams, and personality conflicts, can serve to hinder teams’ abilities to reach the third or fourth stages.
But that doesn’t mean the project cannot be successful — it just means that as a project manager, you’ll have a bit more work to do to keep everything together!
Whether you are studying for the PMP exam, or are already a project manager or a manager overseeing teams that change and re-form with any frequency, the Tuckman ladder is a concept with which you should be familiar.
By understanding the different stages that teams go through, you can better help your team overcome challenges and achieve success.