Tigers in the Office

Shane Springer
Jun 18 · 8 min read

No, this isn’t Vegas; you’re not Siegfried; we’re not talking about tigers. This is about taking your business to the next level.

Picture a past project that didn’t go well. The budget is blown and nothing is working. You’re sleeping in your car or in a hotel nearby when you get to sleep at all. None of the systems that should be working are cooperating. The customer is present and peeved. Reaching your breaking point, you pick up the phone. Who do you call?

Meet your Tiger Team.


The year is 1964. The Surgeon General announces that smoking ‘might’ be harmful to your health, the Beatles kick off the British Invasion with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ climbing to #1 on the charts, microphones are found in the walls of the Moscow US Embassy, Martin Luther King Jr. wins the Nobel Peace Prize, and a small team of scientists and researchers publishes a paper defining the Tiger Team.

This paper, Program Management in Design and Development, heavily leverages some experiences of one of its authors, Walter C. Williams. Williams isn’t a popular name in the business world, nor was he a technology magnate; he set his sights a good deal higher. Williams served as the Director of Operations at Cape Canaveral and the Associate Director of the Space Task Group. During his leadership with the Space Task Group, he put the first American in space.

Technical specialists, selected for their experience, energy, and imagination

If anyone understands the value of the Tiger Team, it’s Walt Williams. In the 1964 publication, a Tiger Team is defined 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”. These skills were tested very publicly six years later in 1970 during the flight of Apollo 13.

The members of the Tiger Team formed to bring our servicemen back to Earth after the service module explosion faced short timelines, failed systems, and pressure from the highest levels. In their case, success bestowed Operations Director Gene Kranz and his Tiger Team members the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

You probably won’t be so fortunate, but that doesn’t make your team any less valuable. There are three simple steps to leveraging and increasing this value: discover, develop, and deploy.

Discover

The first step to maximizing your Tiger Team is to identify who they even are. Many companies have a team of people who are already filling this role but, because they aren’t formally attached to an idea like this team, they are often assigned elsewhere and unable to reprioritize without significant effort to assist with your fire. If you own the company or there are five people, this probably isn’t a huge deal to just make a phone call and sort it out. If you are on a team of 200 in a company of 20,000, the issue becomes much murkier.

If you don’t know offhand who these people might be, start by considering who you consider a go-to resource or a Subject Matter Expert (SME) for the various needs of your operation. If these people aren’t working together today, maybe they should be. This team is also foundationally one composed of independent thinkers and people unable to accept a less than ideal solution. Finding this sort of employees can also help to build your team.

It’s likely that these folks already exist and are flying under the radar

It’s likely that these folks already exist and are flying under the radar. However, if you can’t identify anyone after a fair amount of effort, it may be time to pursue a hiring initiative to fix that. While these individuals are often expensive or particular, having them in your corner when things go south can be the difference between a business existing or not.

Keep in mind that it’s wise to prioritize qualities like independent work or a desire to self-study. These qualities can’t be taught and will motivate anyone in the position that has them to become the SME that you’re looking for. This also allows for a wider lens when looking for these skills internally providing the opportunity to promote from within and improve morale without impacting costs as heavily.

Once these contributors are identified or hired, it’s time to formally task them into this ragtag bunch and move on to Phase Two.

Develop

Now that you have your A-Team, it’s time to make sure they fit your bill exactly. Many of the people that embody these optimal qualities come from radically different backgrounds, experiences, and motivations. At the development phase, it is vital that you start with making a list of the skills that are needed to cover every aspect of what you need to provide.

Start with making a list of the skills that are needed

Take into account not just what goes into supporting your product, but also what may exist in your customer’s world that you will need to semi-directly support as well. For example, if you sell a scheduling software, you might also need to know the ins and outs of Microsoft Exchange or Google Calendar to support the integration. Your team would need these skills above and beyond just the expertise around your product.

Once this list is created, your Tiger Team’s skills should be evaluated against it. Do not expect that your list will be satisfied magically off the bat. The development phase is one of the most important as it requires both a concrete agreement inside your organization of what skills are needed as well as establishing a path for team members to fulfill them. This is also the time where equipment needs that may differ from your normal teams should be identified and fulfilled. Investing in your team just to tie one arm behind their back is a pretty poor idea. Having the right tools (no matter how different these are from what is typically used) is critical to the success of this team.

Keep in mind that the whole Tiger Team project is a cycle. The Development Phase will be repeated again and again to maintain and expand skills as staff, markets, and goals change.

Once the deficits are highlighted, it’s time to solve them. Scheduling internal or external training, getting access to self-study materials, and setting milestone goals for these skills to be improved creates a somewhat formal training plan and also provides a rough timeline on when your team will be ready for Phase Three.

Deploy

The time has come. The skills are sharp, the gear is packed, the team is ready, and you have a customer with problems beyond their normal project team. It’s time to deploy your Tiger Team.

What happens next isn’t something I can spell out. This highly specialized team was designed from the ground up to fix very specific issues for your unique business. I couldn’t guess what they are nor how they would be resolved. Some instances might see a resolution nearly immediately with your team’s involvement. Some might still take days, weeks, or months. The saving grace of this idea is that, whatever the duration, you can be confident that it will be substantially shorter than leaving an unprepared team to resolve it. Additionally, your customer will be infinitely happier getting direct access to your problem solvers.

Eventually, your problem will be solved and your trouble over for the time being. Your team will return slightly worse for wear but victorious. It’s time for them to head home and get a well-deserved rest. But your job is just resuming.

This is a time to re-evaluate

As I mentioned above, the Tiger Team needs care and attention as it cycles through its three phases. This is a time to re-evaluate. Given the feedback from this project, you need to determine if the team needs to grow or maintain. If it does require growth, you’re back in Phase One (Discovery). If not, it’s time to take that same feedback and determine if there were any holes in the skills you’ve determined before the engagement. If more skills were needed, add them to the training plan as you did before and get those boxes checked. This process will keep your Tiger Team in top form and maximum return on investment.

Tiger Team Takeaways

If you read back through this article, you will likely notice that the Discovery and Development sections are much larger than the actual Deployment. In reality, this team will spend more time deployed and fixing problems than you will spend administering it.

With that said, this is not a ‘set it and forget it’ endeavor. Without maintenance, this team can quickly lose the edge that is required through training droughts, staff changes, or any number of other reasons. Maximizing your investment requires effort. Putting in this effort will pay off exponentially.

  • Staff stay onboard as they have necessary training and tools
  • Clients stay onboard as they have a strong backstop to ensure that their projects will succeed
  • Margins stay high as they aren’t eroded by the long-term commitment of less skilled staff
  • Many more benefits specific to your business

Maybe you are still on the fence about the value for your business. Maybe NASA’s endorsement didn’t move your needle. Maybe you don’t see your projects going off of the rails. If so, that’s awesome. You might just be doing a killer job. Maybe.

But you also might not know that there are holes that your staff has been quietly backfilling at their expense and mounting frustration day-to-day.

Talk to your top performers. Offer them this article and ask them about the idea. I think you’ll find that they think there is always room to improve and that they’re ready to spend the rest of their career over-delivering.

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Shane Springer

Written by

An industry veteran in Audiovisual and Collaboration spaces. A technologist and hobbyist with love of learning spanning from horticulture to machine learning.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +477K people. Follow to join our community.