Start Smart: How to Build High-Performing Teams.

By Associate professor Therese Sverdrup and Professor Vidar Schei

11 June 2021 13:09

Start Smart: How to Build High-Performing Teams.

Have you ever wondered how to kick off your team? Setting the stage for great performance might not be as complicated as you believe. The recipe: Discuss expectations and make a team charter.

Obviously, we only get one chance to make a first impression. But can the first minutes of interaction really be crucial for how we work and perform together? Well, according to team research guru Richard Hackman “the things that happen the first time a group meets strongly affect how the group operates throughout its entire life. Indeed, the first few minutes of the start of any social system are the most important” (Coutu, 2009).

Yet, if the first phase is so important, how do we approach this phase? Unfortunately, very little research speaks to this question. We, therefore, launched the project “Start Smart” to find out. And the key finding that emerged from this project is simple: It is all about getting the expectations on the table. And a powerful tool to work on these expectations is the team charter. Three elements seem essential in this endeavor; agreeing on what to do, whom to do it, and how to work together. In other words, spell out (1) the purpose of the team, (2) the roles of the members, and (3) the norms the team should adhere to.

Let us have a closer look at the start smart project. We started out as “flies on the wall” in several teams’ first meetings and then followed them for several months interviewing all team members multiple times, as well as having them writing diaries and answering surveys (Schei & Sverdrup, 2019). The findings really encouraged us to continue the project. In fact, even short statements or lack of clarifications in the early meetings seemed to have a profound effect on subsequent interactions. As one team member said after several meetings when looking back on the team’s mandate: “what in the world are we doing”? Handling the basic challenges of teamwork (e.g., goal clarification, coordination, motivational issues) early on seemed utterly important for their ability to function well.

Inspired by our observations, we went on to study dairy farmers getting together in joint operations of three to five members (Sverdrup & Schei, 2015). We visited 12 joint operations to talk about their establishing phase and got access to a series of objective performance data. A fascinating pattern emerged. Joint operations that early on talked about expectations towards each other and their teamwork, showed consistently better cooperation and generally higher performance than those who had not. When asked if they discussed issues like goals and expectations, a farmer answered: “No, you know, we did not do that. And that was a big mistake”. In contrast, another farmer said about their start-up: “We used a lot of time discussing expectations, and I think that is the most important time spent, … so that everyone understands what the common platform is”. 

Although promising, the above studies could not reveal if the performance of the teams really stemmed from early interaction and team charter-like activities. We, therefore, tested the effects of a team charter in an experiment with 78 student teams (Sverdrup, Schei, & Tjølsen, 2017). At the start of the semester about half of the student teams established a team charter by discussing their goals and expectations for the upcoming teamwork. The other half did a more traditional team-building exercise. Later in the semester, they all took part in a tower construction exercise that demanded creativity and the ability to handle disruptions during their work (e.g., rotation of team leaders across teams and a more challenging goal). Which teams handled the disruptions best and built the highest tower? Yes, you probably guessed it already: The team charter teams outperformed the team-building teams. 

But could this effect of a team charter really last over time? Next, we followed 120 student teams during a semester to find the answer (Sverdrup & Schei, 2019). Measuring the quality of the team processes throughout the semester demonstrated that team charters indeed have a long-lasting positive effect on e.g., members’ effort and the teams’ cooperation climate. In addition, another intriguing finding emerged. Some of the teams did not make a team charter at the start of the semester but were just asked to discuss previous challenges in teamwork and how these experiences could help their team to work effectively during the semester. And these teams in fact matched the positive results of the team charter teams. Possibly, they made their own team charter, although not by discussing pre-defined questions about goals, roles, and norms.

In sum, the Start Smart project clearly points to the power of the first phase of team interaction. And the common theme that emerges is the importance of discussing expectations and agreeing on the purpose of the team, the roles of the members, and the norms of how to work together. This might be ensured by having the team developing a team charter that contains these basic elements. And then the team may supplement with other themes that are likely to be important to discuss up-front in the team’s context. However, just starting out by discussing previous experiences and how that may help the focal team to prosper, maybe an easy and powerful alternative if time does not allow for a more systematic approach. 

This is all good, but what if you have already started your team? Is it too late to benefit from the start smart approach? Do not worry, there is always the possibility to restart your team, using the same procedures as above. And in fact, closely monitoring the team by recurrently reflecting on how the team is functioning, will help you make sure that your team remains high performing over time. 


Coutu, D. (2009). Why teams don’t work. Harvard Business Review. Downloaded September 20th 2018 from why-teams-dont-work.

Schei, V., & Sverdrup, T. E. (2019). Start smart: Effektiv oppstart av team. Magma: Tidsskrift for økonomi og ledelse, 22 (2), 29-39,

Sverdrup, T. E., & Schei, V. (2015). “Cut me some slack”: The psychological contracts as a foundation for understanding team charters. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 51, 451-478, doi: 10.1177/0021886314566075. 

Sverdrup, T. E., Schei, V., & Tjølsen, Ø. A. (2017). Expecting the unexpected: Using team charters to handle disruptions and facilitate team performance. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 21, 53-59, doi: 10.1037/gdn0000059.

Sverdrup, T. E., & Schei, V. (2019): Start smart: A longitudinal experiment of start-up activities in teams. Presented at the 14th INGRoup-conference (Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research), Lisbon, Portugal.

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