How to Build a High Performance Project Team

Indy Racing Pit Crew
GettyImages/TomMerton

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 create and reinforce an environment where the right behaviors flourish and the wrong behaviors die of oxygen deprivation.

In this article, we explore the challenges of poor performing project teams as well as the approaches that top team leaders and project managers employ to move beyond Tuckman’s forming and storming stages to one that emphasizes performing.

Fair warning: there is no magical list of “do these things and a great team will emerge.” This is hard work that requires the application of both the science behind group performance and the art behind leading others. 

Five Common Misfires of Project Teams that Struggle:

Spend time observing and working with project teams that struggle and you will notice many areas where communication breaks down and performance suffers. Dig beneath the surface in search of root causes of underperformance, and these five common issues invariably emerge.

1. There is no clear and galvanizing purpose. Team participants are unaware of the importance of the project and its connection to the customer or organization. To project team members, this is “just another project.”

2. The customer does not have a seat at the table. The lack of clarity surrounding the customer results in a foggy project environment where team members grope and flail their way through everything from requirements to timing and costs.

3. Project management is present, but project leadership is missing in action. Values are vague or nonexistent. Responsibility and accountability are not well established. The tools and templates are there, but the soft skills are nowhere to be found.

4. Poorly defined and unclear roles. Performance suffers when people do not understand their own roles or the roles being played by team members.

5. Too many projects chasing too few resources. In today’s matrix management style organizations, team members are often distributed across multiple initiatives. When projects proliferate like rabbits reproducing, overtaxed team members struggle to focus and do their best work.

Eight Actions You Must Take to Create a High-Performance Project Team:

While it would be nice to believe that there is a simple checklist to follow for building a high-performance team, life, projects and people are not that easy. The suggestions below are more “minimum conditions required for success” than they are “do this and everything will work.” Remember, building great teams is a blend of the science of human psychology and neuroscience and the art of leadership. Use the ideas in good health as a foundation for your own high-performance team development!

1. Turn the project into an epic quest! Take a management lesson from the world of video gaming and make certain that team members are hyper aware of the nature of their mission and its importance to the customer(s), the organization and to their development as professionals. Every project should be viewed by the team members as an opportunity to level-up by both applying their skills and developing and learning new skills.

With creativity, even the smallest of initiatives can be positioned as part of a larger quest.

2. Recognize and leverage the S.C.A.R.F. model from the world of neuroscience. This acronym stands for: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Everything about the team structure and management must reinforce these critical personal issues for each team member. The effective project leader pays careful attention to these attributes and structures her behaviors to reinforce the positives for each individual on the project team.

3. Take an important leadership lesson from the research into leading in dangerous situations.

Team members must trust that the team leader cares for each team member 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?” And then define the behaviors you must showcase daily to reinforce your commitment to them.

4. Make certain the customer is present from day one and in every subsequent meeting. You cannot start the project if the view to the customer is 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 part of project scoping and approval. In situations where the customer cannot be physically present, some teams 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 to this issue.”

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

6. Teach your team these two critical skill sets: how to talk and how to decide. 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 gray matter 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 professional certification, yet they are essential for helping a team learn to work together.

7. 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 in number six above. Leverage the coach to challenge assumptions and be on the lookout for various group biases including groupthink.

8. Fight hard for the time and attention of your team members. Great project leaders work hard on behalf of their team members to ensure that they have the ability to focus and do their best work. As a project leader, this means you will have to engage in organizational politics with other project and functional leaders and negotiate on behalf of your team members. Your advocacy and your ability to offer reciprocal support to other project leaders for their own resource needs will prove critical in short-term team performance and your long-term success.

The Bottom line for Now:

If you leave project team performance to chance, it is unlikely that high performance will emerge. Given the importance of projects in our workplace, everyone from the executives approving and sponsoring projects to the team leaders, project managers and team members have a stake in the outcomes. Work hard from your position as project manager or team member to ensure the presence of the tools and ideas outlined above, and your odds of creating a high-performance team improve considerably.