Small work groups tend to go through predictable phases. One famous group process model sums this up with the phrases “forming, storming, norming, performing”. Each of these terms summarizes typical communication activities that need to happen for a group to gel and do productive work with one another. The roots of this lie in human psychology – which we will not address in any depth here. Just consider there is a lot of experience behind these ideas and many, many groups have gone through something like the phases in this process on the way to accomplishing whatever their stated goals were.
This is the “getting to know you” phase of group work. Group members need to find out more about one another before the group can really get down to business. There are types of personality that each person has problems with. (These may be different types of personality for different people.) Group members need to test each other and find out what sort of people they will be working with. One group member may trigger a “fight or flight” response in another group member without even realizing this is going on. In any case, people generally need to go through a more or less extended process before trusting or opening up to one another. The “forming” stage sums up that trust-building process.
Storming is about leadership. Consider the animal kingdom. A certain amount of mock combat or literal head-butting is required before establishing the leader of the pack or the alpha in the herd. Humans are animals too. We have mammalian emotions in our limbic systems and combat-ready reptile brain elements farther down than that. Just taking a vote does not quite finish the job of leadership selection. To really follow a leader in any serious way, we really need to feel the leader as a leader. There are no shortcuts. To become really established, leaders must be tested. Policies need to be questioned. Ideas need to be challenged. National elections involved endlessly drawn out leadership auditions for a reason. There is a ritual element to leadership selection. Unless we have given the potential leader a bit of a pounding, and unless the leader can survive that gauntlet and project an aura of strength in the aftermath, the leader will not really be believable as a leader. Most IT people do not thrive on drama and conflict, so the storming part of group formation would be very tempting to skip. It won’t work. Unless you really lock in on the question of leadership and unless you really get any potentially divisive issues out on the table, the group will get stuck in politeness, superficial cooperation, and lack of real production. The nicest, most collaborative thing you can do is just to be honest about how you feel about supporting a potential leader, questioning the leader, or becoming the leader.
Norming is the phase in which the group works out its processes. All the questions in the previous section (how often to meet? when to meet? how to communicate? how to handle member non-performance?) now must be addressed. Note the if you try to work out all the rules and expectations for your group straightaway (skipping forming and storming), your rules will exist on paper, so to speak, but no one will take them seriously. Norm are the rules that govern relationships, but norms do not mean much if the relationship do not exist in the first place. Forming and storming are the group phases that create relationships. Norming is for working out the details. If debates keep breaking out in the norming phases, that means the leadership battle was not really resolved properly in the first place. Time for some more head butting! Setting norms may require some level of personal compromise on the part of different group members. You may not be in love with the group’s meeting schedule or preferred communications channel or time lines or deadlines or whatever else gets decided at this point. But you need to be willing to go along with it. Unless some common ground and group feeling gets established in the earlier phases of group formation, disputes about schedules or deliverables or team goals or any other matter might break the group apart. Usually, IT professionals or students training to be IT professionals can find enough common ground about goals, objectives, and processes to collaborate on the sorts of fairly short-term projects found in IT classes. You do not have to be friends with your group members! You do need to respect the processes and boundaries established by the group and to contribute productively in whatever role the group expects you to perform.
The first three phases are overhead for setting up the group. Performing is the phase in which the actual work happens. Communications in the performing phase are limited and instrumental. You need information from a teammate, so you just ask. You need to set up a quick side meeting with someone to review some code. So you set up the meeting and review the code. If minor disputes break out, maybe you just appeal to the leader for a decision and work things out that way. As long as everyone is generally happy with their group roles and with the actions required for them to fulfill those roles, performing can continue on for a decently long stretch of time. Something like a weekly all hands meeting (like an agile standup) generally will work to keep an IT production group on track. If things go majorly wrong, or if you need to shakeup the group membership, or if a new project appears with entirely different requirements, then it may be back to forming … But for most purposes, forming a group once is good enough. Just never take your group for granted! Group process needs a certain amount of care and feeding at each step. Groups, like physical objects, are subject to the laws of entropy. Unless they are periodically maintained, they will surely drift apart.