How to Build a High-Performance Project Team

Pit crew for high performance racing car

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Project teams do not spontaneously emerge as productive, high-performance groups. Rather, they are the output of the deliberate actions of the leaders and team members to produce an environment of trust and collaboration. Teams generally need time to begin to perform at their peak level.

Tuckman’s theory of team development—forming, storming, norming and performing is as valid as when it was first published. The dynamics of team progression are still the same. However, there are some steps you can take to accelerate the progress of a team through the turmoil that leads to the performing phase.

Considerations for a High-Performance Team

It would be nice to believe that there is a simple checklist to follow for building a high-performance team. The unfortunate truth is, is there is no one recipe for success.

Building great teams is a blend of psychological knowledge and leadership. You need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the people that work for you and employ them in a manner in which they will be successful.


The backgrounds of candidates need to be considered before assigning teams. Personalities and abilities should be matched that complement each other. This may not always be possible, but your best efforts should be given in matching teams together.

Leverage the SCARF Model

SCARF (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness), is a model of the way people interact, developed by Dr. David Rock in 2008. This model describes social experiences that affect human behaviors.

  • Status: how important someone feels to others
  • Certainty: Ability to predict outcomes of interactions with people
  • Autonomy: A sense of the control someone has over social interactions
  • Relatedness: How a person relates to others. Is a person a supporter and friend, or a rival
  • Fairness: are the conversations, ideas exchanged, and interaction as a whole fair

Everything about the team structure and management must reinforce these critical personal issues for each team member. An effective project leader should pay careful attention to these behaviors and reinforce the positive ones for each individual on the project team.

Trust in Leadership

Team members must trust that the team leader cares for each of them and is critically focused on ensuring their safety and success. As the team leader, ask and answer, Why will my team members trust me to lead them to safety and success?”

Define the behaviors you must showcase daily to reinforce your commitment to them. Then, commit to demonstrating those behaviors.

Customer Presence Is Necessary

There may not always be a customer for a project. If there is, you cannot start it if the customer needs are unclear. Whether your initiative is focused on a very specific audience or a more general set of target groups, there are techniques you can employ to create clarity.

For new product development initiatives aimed at capturing new customers, create detailed customer personas for each type. For large construction or development efforts, ensure a customer representative is involved in defining the project scope and approval.

In situations where the customer cannot be physically present, you could create a proxy—a cutout or a stuffed animal—that occupies a seat in every meeting. The group is required to ask and attempt to answer for every decision: “What will the customer say about this.”

Create a Team Charter

Everyone on the team should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. The purpose of the charter is to establish leadership, member roles, the project purpose, deliverables, and any other pertinent items the team members must be made aware of.

Everyone on the team should ask and answer: “At the end of this project, what will my team members say that I did?” Share, discuss and define a role description that corresponds to the answers.

Communication and Decision Making

Early in the team formation process, set expectations for interpersonal communication and ensure that you reinforce accountability. For group settings, teach the team to explore issues through facilitation approaches that focus the group’s thinking on one topic at a time.

Teach them to parse out the emotions, risks, ideas and information issues and tackle each one separately before rushing to judgment. For decision-making, help teams understand every big choice from multiple viewpoints (frames) and teach them to evaluate multiple options for each decision.

These skills are not taught in project management programs and are not required as part of their professional certification, yet they are essential for helping a team learn to work together.

Leverage Team Coaching

Coaching is a powerful tool for supporting team performance, and it is often underutilized. You can use external or internal resources for this role, although the coach must be an objective outsider capable of observing and offering frank, behavioral feedback on team performance and effectiveness.

The coach is an invaluable resource in helping observe and identify breakdowns in the discussion and decision-making processes outlined previously. Leverage the coach to challenge assumptions and be on the lookout for various group biases including group-think.

Fight For Your Team's Time

Great project leaders work hard on behalf of their team members to ensure that they can focus and do their best work. As a project leader, this means you may have to engage in organizational politics with other project and functional leaders to negotiate on behalf of your team members.

Your advocacy and ability to offer reciprocal support to other project leaders for their resource needs will prove critical in short-term team performance and your long-term success.

Five Common Issues of Struggling Teams

If you spend time observing and working with project teams that struggle, you'll notice many areas where communication breaks down and performance suffers. Much of the time, these five common issues emerge.

No Clear and Energizing Purpose

Team participants may be unaware of the importance of the project and its connection to the customer or organization. To project team members, this is “just another project.”

Team members may be continuously shifted from team to team, working toward tight deadlines on stressful projects with no break in-between. This may cause team-member burnout.

The lack of information about a project can also cause problems. Members may not understand the purpose or importance of the work, causing low performance.

No Customer Involvement

The lack of clarity surrounding what the customer wants usually results in a foggy project environment. Team members grope their way through all phases of project execution, trying to imagine the best outcomes for a customer.

No Project Leadership

Values are vague or nonexistent. Responsibility and accountability are not well established. The tools and templates are there, but the soft skills of leadership missing.

Poorly Defined Roles, Scope, and Controls

Performance suffers when people do not understand their roles in a project. Most of the time they are only told to accomplish a task by a certain deadline. They have no clarity on how much they can do, what their portion is contributing to, or when to move on to the next tasks or phases in the project.

The more that members know and understand about a project, the more they can make decisions on their own. They will be able to address issues in multiple ways based on their experience and knowledge, creating value while completing their tasks.

Controls should be specific and communicated to all members so that they understand their progress compared to others. When team members know how the team as a whole is progressing, they can speed up their work to catch up or slow down to make sure everyone meets deadlines at the same time. Or, they could work to get ahead so they can work on other projects they may be assigned to.

Too Many Projects

In a matrix management style organization, team members are often distributed across multiple initiatives. Team members are assigned to more than one project and not given enough leeway from their report-to manager to accomplish the project tasks. Overtaxed team members struggle to focus, do shoddy work, and tend to burn-out.

Some Last Words

If you leave project team performance to chance, it is unlikely that high performance will emerge. Given the importance of projects in workplaces, everyone from executives to team members should understand the desired outcome of a project.

Communication and collaboration between the project manager, customer, report-to manager, and team members are vital to the success of any project.

Work hard from your position as the project manager or team member to ensure the presence of the tools and ideas outlined, and your odds of creating a high-performance team improve considerably.