Beware The Tiger Team: Why Special Project Teams Can Sometimes Backfire

Tiger Team: noun, a team of specialists in a particular field brought together to work on specific tasks.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before:

  • “This project is stalled, let’s put a team together to kick start it”
  • “Holy crap, we really need to improve our [department x], let’s get some folks on this right away!”
  • “Wow, how did the competition beat us to this?  We need to put together a tiger team right now to solve this!”

Ahh yes, the all hands on deck speech also known as the mating call of the tiger team.

But Shouldn’t We Fix These Problems Right Away?

Now don’t get me wrong, these are indeed big problems and you should definitely get your best minds on solving them right away.  A well assembled tiger team can cut through red tape, process issues and organizational inertia like a light saber through a storm trooper.  And yes, if you have a short term problem, by all means, put together a short term team to solve it.  Still, pause a second and answer this question for me:

Seriously, if the situation is so dire, how did you let it happen?  How could things have gotten this bad without anyone noticing or addressing them?  How did your team / division / department / company row so far up the proverbial creek that now you now need to call in a hit squad of your best people just to turn you around, build you a paddle and push you back into the water?  And here in lies the issue with tiger teams.

Solving The Root Problem

Tiger teams are sexy because they’re fun to put together and execute.  Get some cool people in a room, think up some awesome solutions, cut through the mess of red tape and get things DONE!  YES!  WE’RE SAVED!  And honestly, that’s actually true.  Tiger teams can and do save the day.  The problem though is that they’re so sexy and fun and effective that many times no one bothers thinking about why things went wrong in the first place.  Why should they, the tiger team has saved us!

Except constant tiger teams are like living in constant crisis mode.  Some people thrive on it but most will eventually burn out of the continuous ebb and flow of crisis followed by tiger team followed by yet another crisis.

Tiger teams are an effective tool in our management tool kit.  They’re also a good way to solve HALF the problem.  Tiger teams solve the short term problem, what they don’t do is solve the long term issue of how we got here in the first place.  For that we need something else, something I like to call, the Human Team.

The Human Team Sounds Lame!

Yah, it does.  Tiger sounds way better.  Humans are weak bags of pink flesh.  Tigers are 500lbs of deadly muscle and claws!  Tigers tear through barriers while humans cower behind them.  All true, but let me point something out to you.  Humans rule this world and tigers need protection from us to survive.  Know why?  Because tigers are animals that can’t adapt, can’t learn and can’t change their ways.  Humans do all those things, and that’s what the Human Team is all about.

Yes, get the tiger team in place to tear through the barriers and get the job done RIGHT NOW, but also put together a human team to analyze what got us in this mess in the first place.  Should we change our ways?  In what way?  What can we learn from this?  What can we do better?  What process needs to change?  What’s the long term solution here so we never end up in this sort of crisis again?

Without the human, the tiger is going to do some damage but will eventually exhaust itself from constant fighting.  With it, it’s an short term solution that’s rarely needed but very effective when called upon.