Understanding the Tiger Team Approach | Lucidchart Blog
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Big problems don’t always need big teams to solve them. In fact, small, agile teams of experts are often the key to solving your biggest issues. That’s when you should consider changing up your typical organizational structure and organizing tiger teams.

Next time you’re facing “mission critical,” consider forming a tiger team to get in, get out, and get your business back on track.

What is a tiger team?

A tiger team is a specialized, cross-functional team brought together to solve or investigate a specific problem or critical issue.

The term “tiger team” originates from the military and was made famous by NASA who deployed a tiger team during the Apollo 13 mission in 1970. During the Apollo 13 lunar landing mission, part of the Service Module malfunctioned and exploded. NASA formed a select technical team tasked with solving the issue and bringing the astronauts safely home. This “Tiger Team” later won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their work on that successful mission.

Today, tiger teams are a popular and effective team structure for organizations who need a focused group of experts to manage technical deployments and solve complex issues. 

When to build a tiger team

Tiger teams are formed to help solve a critical issue after the most likely solutions have been attempted. Tiger teams usually focus on important, high-profile, high-impact, mission-critical projects. (In other words, you wouldn’t form a tiger team to tackle your regular day-to-day projects—think of them more like an elite force.)

Tiger teams may be formed to address projects that are failing or blocked in some way, or they could be formed to work on new projects developed in response to opportunities with high potential (e.g., high revenue or business potential).

Once the project is complete, the members of the tiger team disperse and return to their original departments and roles.   

Who makes up a tiger team?

Who you assign to your tiger team will depend on the team’s objective and the problem to solve. However, a tiger team will typically include a small variety of subject-matter experts (often senior-level) from business development, operations, finance, legal, engineering, and even sales and marketing. 

Keep in mind that while this is a team of specialists, each person should have a broad range of skills. By building a roster of “the best of the best,” you reduce skills gaps and blind spots and increase agility. Including team members with hyper-nuanced specialties without broader experience can lead to bloated headcounts and slower maneuvering.  

You will also want to assign a corporate sponsor to the group to help secure any needed resources, funding, and additional personnel throughout the project.

Why use a tiger team?

Tiger teams have several advantages that make them an appealing option when critical issues arise.

They are made up of mature experts who understand the problem (including the risks and stakes), know what to do and how to do it, and work well with other people and departments. Tiger teams are also small, agile, and cross-functional, so they can make and act on decisions with both speed and precision. 

Because of their cross-functional expertise, tiger teams can approach a problem from multiple perspectives and understand how it all integrates, making it easier to identify and focus on the most critical and high-priority items.  

How to form an effective tiger team

Follow these steps to build your tiger team.

1. Identify the problem to solve

Before you form your tiger team, you first have to identify what problem they will tackle. Do you need a team to streamline a technology deployment? Or maybe there’s an important project that is over-budget and under-delivered that is threatening your client experience.

Evaluate your business needs and opportunities to assess which projects or priorities could use the expertise and agility of your tiger team.  

2. Clarify the needed skills and experience

Once you know what problem you’re trying to solve, you can figure out what skills or expertise is needed to address those issues. 

A highly technical project may require a tiger team with an engineering or tech-heavy background. While a broader business issue might need the combined experience of team members from more diverse roles across the organization. The nature of the project will direct how focused or broad the skillsets are in your tiger team. 

3. Identify your key players

Based on the skills and experience needed for your project, identify who in your organization has the expertise to fill the limited tiger team roster. Tiger team candidates are often easy to spot—they tend to be employees or contractors with maturity in the industry and seniority in the organization. In other words, they aren’t rookies.

In smaller companies, creating a shortlist is usually quick and easy. However, if you are part of a larger organization, narrowing down the list can be trickier. 

Lucidchart can help you identify and assign team members where their skill sets will have the most impact. Import employee data to automatically generate an org chart, use conditional formatting to highlight preferred skills or roles, and switch to a view of your tiger teams with smart containers. Learn more.

org chart by cross-functional team template
org chart by cross-functional team in group view

And if you haven’t already, consider drafting a staffing plan. A staffing plan can help you map out your organization and discover what experience your staff currently has and uncover any existing skills gaps. Understanding your organization’s staffing levels is the first step to understanding and identifying your organization’s greatest personnel assets. 

The tiger team approach

With your tiger team in place, you are ready to hit the ground running. To give your team the best chance of success and increase their effectiveness in the field, follow these steps.

  1. Observe and document symptoms and their impact.
  2. Identify possible causes.
  3. Develop tests to validate those causes.
  4. Decide which tests to perform based on organizational priorities.
  5. Conduct testing until root cause is confirmed.
  6. Outline possible solutions.
  7. Agree on a solution and implement it. 
  8. Document results.

This approach helps keep your team on track and maximize results. 

Common mistakes to avoid

Although tiger teams are ostensibly your “best of the best,” they may still run into obstacles or mistakes that can slow progress and hinder their effectiveness. Here are a few common mistakes to watch out for when running a tiger team.

No strategic direction

The team needs to approach every problem strategically to ensure resource optimization and overall effectiveness. Without a clear understanding of the problem and a strategic approach, the team will bounce around chasing different symptoms and solutions.

Failure to define the problem and all its symptoms clearly

In order to solve a problem, the team has to understand the problem and all its symptoms clearly. Each person should be aligned in their understanding and have equal access to information so that everyone is working from the same knowledge base. 

Scope creep

The team may initially focus on the original problem, but discussions can wander and veer off into other issues that may be related but are not central to the task at hand. Scope creep distracts the team from the core problem (and therefore the ideal solutions), slowing progress and wasting resources. 

Lack of documentation

One of the benefits of a tiger team is their ability to drill down to the root cause of an issue and solve it at the foundation. But if the team is not documenting their processes, solutions, and learnings, that work can’t be capitalized on throughout the organization. 

Tiger teams are a great way to address critical issues with speed and agility. Use these tips to maximize your team’s effectiveness and keep your organization running smoothly.

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