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TEAMING: Tiger Teams – The New Frontier of Teaming

Awhile back I ran into this term – Tiger Teams – and was intrigued by how a Tiger Team might differ from another type of team, or if it was simply a glorified name for a team that would oversee something like a Kaizen event.  What does being a Tiger Team really mean?  Is becoming a Tiger Team relevant for all teams?   

If we think of teaming on a continuum of development from simple to complex, Tiger Teams would be at the far end of the continuum, as indicated on the chart below. 


It was time to do some digging in order to be able to fill in the last box on the continuum.  The term Tiger Team is described on Wikipedia as “a specialized group tasked with testing the effectiveness of an organization’s ability to protect assets by attempting to circumvent, defeat or otherwise thwart the organization’s internal and external security.”  In the beginning Tiger Teams were used primarily in the aerospace industry (think Apollo 13) and in the computer security field and the military.  They would assign or hire a Tiger Team to test the organization’s security measures to see how easily they could be penetrated.  When the Tiger Team was successful, they would leave notes or signs behind saying such things as “busted” or “your code book has been stolen.”   Tiger Teams also became expert at acting remotely by attacking networks and securing communication channels.  A 1964 definition of Tiger Teams describes them as “a team of undomesticated and uninhibited technical specialists, selected for their experience, energy and imagination, and assigned to track down relentlessly every possible source of failure in a spacecraft subsystem.” (Dempsey, Davis, Crossfield, and Williams, “Program Management in Design and Development”)  This video clip from the movie, Apollo 13, demonstrates an existing Tiger Team called back into action to address the looming re-entry crisis.  



This research suggests that the term Tiger Team has evolved over the years from an espionage focus to the more recent problem solving orientation.  This change opens the door to a much broader use of Tiger Teams in business and other high performance organizations.  It also suggests that several characteristics in the performance of a Tiger Team are essential regardless of its purpose: 

  • The ability to arrive at multi-dimensional solutions at three levels: technical, process and human
  • The ability to incorporate statistical and scientific methods of problem solving and decision making
  • A willingness to break rules, think outside the box and move beyond existing boundaries
  • The ability to maintain a continuous intensity of focus and action orientation from all members, not just the leader, over the entire span of the work
  • The capability of addressing complex, multi-faceted tasks and/or projects with narrow margins for error
  • The ability to perform within tight timeframes and  low risk tolerances to achieve rapid response recovery

With this description in mind, obviously not every team needs to be a Tiger Team.  However, every small organization might benefit from one or two Tiger Teams, and the larger companies might need a number of Tiger Teams at multiple levels and sites.  To a certain extent it reminds me of the teams that prepare to climb Mount Everest.  It takes years of preparation; people must prove their competency prior to the trip and only those approved can make the journey.  It’s not a trip for the faint-hearted, or for those who focus on doing minimums.

So imagine a person who developmentally wants to achieve Tiger Team status in an organization (especially where upward mobility is limited).  The individual would invest in preparing him/herself for the team, demonstrate increasingly complex skill development through participation in lower-level projects, agree to be tested on technical/process/human competencies, be mentored by “masters” in complex problem solving and decision making and finally be approved for inclusion on a Tiger Team.  Being selected for a Tiger Team wouldn’t represent just more work; it would represent a significant accomplishment, like a Black Belt in Six Sigma, or the difference between being in the Navy vs. a Navy Seal; being a pilot vs. an astronaut; or being a doctor vs. a surgeon. 

In organizations where vertical mobility is less and less likely as layers are minimized, this idea of achieving Tiger Team status might be very attractive, especially to Millenials who have no intention of waiting around for years for a promotion. 

I’m beginning to see a vision of a Tiger Team with 8-10 intense players who set the bar exceedingly high for themselves to perform at all three levels of teaming:  content, process and relationship.  They are tasked with intensely complex, systemic problems and yet bring all the soft skill capability to handle the spectrum of human issues – from high performance meetings to consensus building.  Their minds have been trained to avoid the common paralysis in decision making that often occurs when information is flooding in (Time Magazine).  They are as familiar with the weaknesses inherent in group process as they are in scientific theories.  They are constantly reading, honing their skills, never satisfied with status quo.

Explore how an organization might put together such a Tiger Team; what road map could be used to achieve Tiger Team status – click here.  

Deborah is the author of three books on teaming, including her most recent, The Team-Building Toolkit, 2nd Edition (AMACOM, 2007).

Explore more about Tiger Teams with our 2-Minute Offense feature:

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