Do You Know How to Build a Stellar Project Team?

Grace Windsor
By | Updated October 12, 2017 | 8 min read
project management team

Successful project management relies on great teams to get the work done on time and as agreed. Unfortunately, with so much emphasis on planning, processes, and tools, it’s easy to overlook the people side of project management.


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Given the temporary nature of projects and a fast-paced business environment, project managers need the team to gel from Day 1 and work together in a collaborative and productive manner. This is rarely the case. Based on research by Dr. Bruce Tuckman, we know teams tend to journey through five stages of development before they can really perform.

As the project manager, you need to understand these stages so you can guide and support your team as needed, regardless of project duration.

Read on to learn more about team formation and best practices to help you build a stellar team.


What Defines a High-Performance Project Team?

Before reviewing Tuckman’s work, let’s look at some qualities of a high-performance team.

  • Goal-orientated: High-performance project teams share a common goal. Each team member is clear on the goal and required tasks, activities, and individual responsibilities required to achieve the desired outcome. Success or failure is a team effort.
  • Innovative: High-performance teams are often more proactive, creative, and, engaged. They actively seek solutions to a challenge and pick up tasks if a team member is unexpectedly unavailable or falls behind the schedule.
  • Follow the 4 Cs: The 4Cs – Companions, Collaborative, Challenging, and Can-Do – act as a guide for individual and team behavior and interactions.


In his popular TED Talk, Tom Wujec suggests successful teams are also characterized by specialist skills, facilitation skills, and a common language.

Now that you know how a high-performance team can look, it’s time to review how to reach this point.


Tuckman and the Five Stages of Team Formation

Tuckman first published his theory of team formation – forming, storming, norming, and performing – in 1965, and added a fifth stage, adjourning or ending, in 1977.

Each stage requires different leadership styles and inputs to move the team through the cycle. The below tips will help when forming a new team, taking over an existing team, or introducing a new team member.

Stage 1: Forming

  • Characteristics: At this early stage of the project, the team is positive and looking forward to the tasks ahead. Communication tends to be polite as team members are still getting to know each other.
  • Leadership Input: This phase requires strong input and guidance from the project manager. During this stage, discuss individual skills and interests; outline the goals and timelines of the project; agree on roles and responsibilities, and establish ways of working.


Stage 2: Storming

  • Characteristics: As the name suggests, conflict and disagreements tend to arise as teams become more familiar with each other and the project. Team members may question the project plan and your leadership. Unfortunately, many teams become stuck in this phase.
  • Leadership Input: Conflict resolution is critical. Although it may be tempting to ignore or suppress conflict, resolving these tensions clears the way for improved communication and collaboration. You should also clarify individual roles and ensure the team is focused on the goal.


Stage 3: Norming

  • Characteristics: Team members start to work together productively, building on each other’s strengths and expertise. Conflicts become easier to deal with as group norms are established. More focused on the goal, the team will seek your input and feedback more frequently. This phase often overlaps with storming as new tasks arise, leading to potential disagreements.
  • Leadership Input: Ask for periodic status updates and provide input as requested. Encourage team members to make decisions and generate new ideas together.


Stage 4: Performing

  • Characteristics: The team is fully engaged and highly motivated. At this stage, the real work of the project takes place.
  • Leadership Input: Ask for periodic status updates and provide input as requested. Delegate tasks as much as possible. Celebrate and reward success.


Stage 5: Adjourning

  • Characteristics: Teams have a natural life cycle and will disband for numerous reasons such as the end of a project or the departure of a colleague. This can elicit feelings of worry and anxiety for some individuals.
  • Leadership Input: Celebrate and reward success. Host a debriefing session to formally disband the team.


The formation of a project team is rarely as neat or linear as the above model suggests; for example, introducing a new team member late in the project can restart the process. However, understanding the model and your role at each stage will help you to cultivate a high-performance team.


Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model

Whilst Tuckman’s model is established and works for most teams, the approach does have some limitations. As pointed out by John Maher, Executive Agile Transformation Coach, IBM, the model doesn’t work for Agile teams, which are both high-performing and sustaining.

He points to the 7-stage Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model as an alternative. This model seeks to enhance workflow through trust, clarity, commitment, implementation, and performance. Here is a brief outline of the seven stages.


1. Orientation – Why am I here?

The team comes together to discuss tasks of use or benefit to the organization. This can include input from relevant product owners. If a team member feels disconnected from the tasks, they may become anxious and disconnected from the group.


 2.Trust Building – Who are you?

Relationships are formed and trust develops between team members. This phase depends on team members understanding their own roles and responsibilities and developing some insights into the working styles and experiences of their teammates.


3. Goal Clarification – What are we doing?

The team discusses how to reach the agreed goals. Some conflict may arise, which should be addressed before moving forward with any work.


4. Commitment – Will we do it?

During this phase, concerns around priorities, roles, and the agreed approach emerge. Some team members will simply agree with the group to avoid taking responsibility for the project direction whilst others will undermine the approach without offering an alternative.


5. Implementation – Who does what, when, and where

The objective of this phase is to develop the schedule and deal with unexpected challenges. Using a collaborative project tool, the team can share work plans, task lists, and progress updates.


6. High Performance – Wow!

Just like the performing stage in Tuckman’s model, this is where real project work takes place.


7. Renewal – Why Continue?

The final stage provides an opportunity to reflect on what worked or didn’t work, and suggest solutions to outstanding problems. These learnings inform Stages 3-5 on future projects and ensure the team is actively engaged in continuous improvement.


Best Practices for Forming a Team

Regardless of the model you choose to follow, there are some fundamental steps you can take to help your team bond and perform quickly.

  • Set Goals: A successful team without a clear goal is an oxymoron, a contradiction. As a project manager, you need to develop and articulate the overall goal to your team and help the team connect their personal goals to the project goal. Research conducted by the Harvard Business School shows that aligning individual goals to corporate strategies, and supporting teams in achieving their goals boosts engagement and performance.
  • Behavioral Norms: Over time, your team will develop a set of norms – informal or formally documented – to guide interactions and behaviors. At the start of the project, set some ground rules such as no laptops or phones at meetings, to avoid any conflict between different working styles.
  • Communication Plan: A project communication plan ensures the right information reaches the right person at the right time in a format that works for them. Having a plan in place will reduce confusion and miscommunication, especially during the early phases of team formation.
  • Personality and Roles: Who we are and how we are wired naturally affects how we interact with others. Ideally, psychometric analysis such as the McQuaig System should form part of recruitment, onboarding, and continuous professional development. These tools can help organizations to assess the skills and knowledge, abilities, attitudes, and personality traits to decide how they will fit into teams, what leadership style works for them, and what further training is needed. In the absence of such tools, you can learn more about personality models such as the EnneagramThe Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI), and Belbin team roles to help build a balanced team.
  • Conflict Management: Conflict is an unavoidable presence in our personal and professional lives. In addition to establishing behavioral norms, you should take steps to prevent any conflicts from escalating. This includes monitoring any changes in team performance and interactions and using feedback mechanisms to identify any tensions or issues.
  • Collaborative Tools: Make sure everyone knows what they have to do and where the project currently stands with a collaborative project site such as BrightWork.



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Grace Windsor
Grace Windsor

Grace is a content creator within the marketing team at BrightWork. She loves creating actionable content in different formats to help others achieve more project success. Grace spent far too long at university studying English literature, which instilled a life-long love of learning and upskilling. In her free time, she enjoys a challenging session at the gym, tucking into a good book, and walking the beautiful Galway coastline with her dog.

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