Growing up, I would make friends with kids who moved into my neighborhood. The initial stages of the relationship were always positive. Invariably, though, the amicable atmosphere would turn into conflict because of turf struggles or vying for domination. Then the conflict would cease, resulting in healthy relationships.
When I was introduced to Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development, I didn’t make this connection, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to believe that his findings apply to many types of relationships, including strategic business partnerships.
In 1965, Tuckman outlined a model for group dynamics containing the stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing. I first learned of the model in the 1990s, while training to teach group dynamics as part of the total quality management movement. Here are a few of the characteristics of each phase:
Over the years, having seen many customer-supplier partnerships come together, I’ve found these truths to be evident in the formation and development of relationships between shippers and third-party logistics (3PL) providers.
In the forming phase, there’s excitement of new possibilities and horizons. While some groundwork has been covered during the request-for-proposal (RFP) and pricing process, groups are forming as new people are brought into the mix, and everyone is involved in aligning with expectations and mutual goals. Personality discovery as well as strengths and weaknesses of individuals are assessed. Everyone is happy that the relationship has come together.
Then comes the storming phase. It occurs due to the introduction of new information about work processes and flows. Even the best-laid plans are challenged, and the intentionality of leadership comes into play. Relationships can be severed if leadership fails to move the group quickly beyond this normal phase of development.
Earlier in my career, I was involved in a multi-million dollar relationship involving a 3PL and large manufacturer that nearly fell apart in the first six months. There were a few reasons for this near-failure, including scope misalignment and lack of senior project management from both sides. Overtime was rampant, customer shipments were missed, order accuracy suffered, and there was management burnout. However, because both teams ultimately exercised proper leadership, the relationship was salvaged, and actually became a benchmark for strong 3PL-shipper relationships.
The relationship began to normalize because leaders decided it would cost too much not to reach this phase. They recognized the cultural aspects of both companies that got them to the forming phase in the first place. Senior members from both companies humbled themselves, acknowledged their areas of disagreement, and made the necessary adjustments. They ensured that the right people were on the bus and in the right seats. As a result, they saved the relationship, preventing both companies from losing lots of money.
As senior teams from both organizations continued to work together to build a more cohesive and strategic relationship, they identified additional areas in which they could work together for mutual gain. The 3PL had services the shipper needed, and once these were identified, the partners became highly integrated.
Some relationships do flourish after the storm. This is especially true when leadership is intent on getting team members through the natural phases of group development.
I presume that this is why the childhood disagreements in many instances grew into productive, lifelong friendships and fond memories. In those cases, there were good leaders in the form of parents and guardians to guide us through the stormy episodes.
To understand Tuckman’s model is to know how to navigate the phases of personal and professional relationships throughout our lives.
Elijah Ray is chief customer officer at Sunland Logistics Solutions.
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