Want to win big? Call in a tiger team

More companies are claiming they use tiger teams, but what does that mean?

The expression “We’ve put a tiger team on it” has become increasingly popular in the government information technology market. The term is thrown around casually, but what does it mean?

To get us up-to-speed, we asked a panel of experts: James Ballard, senior vice president of global services at 21st Century Systems and former president of Perot Systems Government Services; Dan Arnold and Joe Lehman of Harris Corp.; and Cari Dorman, director of business development at Computer Sciences Corp.

First a little history: The term started in the military. Ballard, a Navy man, and Lehman, a retired Marine, both used the term 20 years ago when they were in the service, but it had nothing to do with IT in those days.

“When the Navy needed some quick turnaround work or repairs, they would assemble a tiger team,” Ballard said. “The connotation was that it was a self-contained team that included all the skill sets and resources needed to do the work — journeymen, planners, engineers, fabricators, etc.”

“A tiger team was a small hand-picked, particularly skilled and capable group of ‘tigers,’ often chosen and chartered by a commanding officer, to plan for and/or achieve a very specific mission,” Lehman said.

The idea of a small, focused group is why the term and concept have caught on in the IT market.

The stimulus package and the hunt for shovel-ready projects has helped popularize the term for industry, Ballard said. “A variety of planning, logistics and execution skill sets are required to accomplish tasks in multiple sites or across multiple agencies,” he said.

So who are your tigers?

Team members are usually subject-matter experts and are relatively senior. They also can be called “firefighters" because they get out fast when called on to solve a problem, Dorman said.

“A corporate sponsor is needed because you will need resources, especially budget and personnel,” Arnold said.

Members are drawn from senior business development, operations, finance and administration, and legal staffs. Depending on the project, there also might be senior engineers, security experts, research analysts, and communications and marketing personnel.

“The list [of tigers] can go on and on,” Dorman said.

Reader Comments

Sat, Dec 5, 2009 Navy Vet Manalapan, NJ

Steven's response is entirely accurate. Tiger Team's are the last best effort to reclaim lost ground and recover schedules. Loss of focus, funding or erratic leadership always resulted in a need for a recovery (panic) schedule. The long-term consequences are exactly as indicated.

Wed, Aug 19, 2009 Peggy

Real definition for 'tiger team' is in the footnote.

Fri, Aug 7, 2009 Steven Moshlak Northern Virginia

The term, "Tiger Team" goes waaay back at least 50 years ago. I worked at Hughes Aircraft Company in the '70's and my father, during the 50's through the 80's. As a young lad, unbeknownst to me, I was assigned to a "sure loser" program. Since I was really raw (19 years old), I would ask my father ( and a few of the other "senior engineers" pretty specific questions in performing my job, as a systems engineer. My dad and a few of the senior engineers were discussing a electrical soltution to a satellite power supply and the subject turned to me and how I was doing on the job. Well, I told them I was just assigned to a "Tiger Team" and that this position had some visibility to the Program Office. When I asked what a "Tiger Team" was, the definition was: "A 'Tiger Team' is formed when there is a massive or series of massive screw-ups. The program manager has effectively screwed-up beyond the point of no return, either as a result of a lack of communication between the Customer and the team on the program or someone 'wrote a check with their mouth they have to cash with their butt.'" Simply stated, instead of doing your planning and engineering up front, the Director of Program Management realized that his "good buddy" lied to him and now they have to open up the checkbook for O/T and expedite fees for parts and machining. Anytime the phrase "Tiger Team" is used, it is code for, "the program is really screwed-up" and although you may place the best and the brightest to address the issue, large demands do not always produce positive results. Relying on "Tiger Team" solutions and always running on "Tiger Team" mode, instead of having a strong core of people results in poor long-term perfomance, poor morale, poor workmanship and higher employee turnover and higher rates of illness, due to constant stress.

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