Christina Toepell, MAAPPS // May 21, 2015
13 students. 13 backgrounds and disciplines. One goal? While the past four months working on the policy project educated me tremendously on policy making, mining and the Mongolian economy, one of my most enriching learning experiences took place on the personal level: It is possible to overcome stagnation and to develop an own team structure that performs successfully.
One of our biggest assets – and certainly also challenges – was our diversity in backgrounds and objectives. We had varying levels of professional experience, came from diverse cultural settings and different disciplines within the academic context of UBC. On top, our motivation to join the project and expectations within the project were not aligned either.
By analyzing Tuckman’s stages of group development – forming, storming, norming and performing, I feel the theoretical concept is fully applicable to the experience of our UBC policy project team of 2015. After our first euphoria in early January, my personal stage of confusion and frustration was quite long and strenuous. Our different objectives and backgrounds started to become rather hampering than empowering.
To me, the big group size coupled with a lack of pre-defined objectives was the main challenge during the first months. Communication got difficult as the myriad of emails and changing availabilities increased inconsistency. Although I was continuously aware of the character-building benefits of a lack of leadership, I got frustrated by the absence of guidance and wished more than once that we had implemented a clear organizational structure from the start. My own personal background didn’t help: Being raised in Germany, I soon realized that I had been shaped more by its straightforward and hierarchical working culture than I would have liked to admit.
Eventually, we found the clue to my perceived paralysation in mid-March: Reducing the size of the group by dividing the team into two equal parts. We now had working topics we were passionate about; we could use our background of country case studies and were able to apply our own research foci to the EITI topic. Communication got easier as the objectives grew clearer. The final announcement of knowing we would be able to experience the country and EITI structures we had worked on first-hand let my motivation catapult. The lack of guideline was finally for our benefit – we were forced to built our own structure but showed ourselves that we can overcome the “storming and norming stage” even with our diversity. Observing the final outcomes, the tangible indicators might have been more impactful if we had started our “serious” work earlier, but the facts I learnt about team culture in diverse teams were so much more meaningful for my long-term development.
Source: Tuckman, Bruce (1965). “Developmental sequence in small groups”. Psychological Bulletin 63 (6): 384–99.