Tiger Teams

Tiger Teams can be helpful in quickly solutioning unplanned events, but there are some key guidelines NLX uses to ensure they continue to be effective.

Andrei Papancea

  • Thoughts by Andrei

It doesn’t matter if you work for a startup or an enterprise. At some point, there will be an unplanned event that requires expert attention and work, often falling outside the normal scope of work for a team or department within an organization. This circumstance could be as much an opportunity as it is a threat.  

In my experience, it could be a new product development that a key client is requesting, or an improvement to an internal employee program, a key customer integration, etc. The situation could be an elusive slow-burning problem that reaches boiling point, or it could come out of left field - outside you and your company’s control. 

The good news is that there are so many ways to remedy such events! One of the practices that has worked well for us is the use of Tiger Teams to solve acute, short-term problems and opportunities. 

My favorite definition of the term “Tiger Team” comes from Lucidchart, and is defined as “a specialized, cross-functional team brought together to solve or investigate a specific problem or critical issue.” And the history behind Tiger teams is interesting as well - Lucidchart continues, “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 to safely and successfully guide the space vessel back to earth.” 

The mission was short-term, high-stakes, and required the expertise of multiple experts.

The team’s success in bringing all astronauts home safely gained worldwide attention in addition to earning a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Leaders from around the world noted the successful strategy and began adopting it in their own organizations and companies. 

Today, most companies have some version of how they handle Tiger Teams, but NLX’s rules and guidelines – created by our Director of Business Operations Ellie Ransom – around what a Tiger Team is and what it does has guided our success. 

For example… 

Rule #1: Only the CEO can create and disband an NLX Tiger Team.  
-- This rule aids us in creating a clear command structure and helps ensure teams are spun up and spun down quickly to get back to regular business practices. 

Rule #2: An NLX Tiger Team comprises individuals selected by the CEO for purposes of addressing an urgent priority or need, as designated by the CEO.
-- Each team is composed of highly specialized individuals who bring something unique to the table to help solve the problem at hand. By centralizing command and having a leader select team members, we’re able to manage workflows across the organization. 

Rule #3: The formation of a Tiger Team will be announced company-wide - in a meeting or via Slack. It will include team member names, project name, and desired purpose or outcome of the effort. 
-- This rule is really helpful in a startup. We have many self-starters here, and announcing the team, the issue they’re working on, and the names to the staff signals that 1) there is an issue, 2) these people are working to solve it and, 3) no employee needs to go rogue. 

Rule #4: Members of the Tiger Team will give primary focus to the Tiger Team project. They are responsible for notifying non-team members of any work plan adjustments that may impact stakeholders of other products, programs, or projects they are involved in. Other NLX departments and groups will accommodate the absence of Tiger Team members.
-- Individuals in the Tiger Team - AND their non-Tiger Team teammates - have clear instructions on what to prioritize. This also creates a conversation between colleagues to ensure all plates keep spinning. Furthermore, the Tiger Team members have a clear understanding that the opportunity they are working on is outside the scope of their normal work and it will return once the situation is resolved. 

Of course, there are many more guidelines that can be implemented and highlighted as well, but these few key rules work for us. Also, we recognize that these rules may not work for every company - each one with its own leaders, culture, and business problems. And we’re still a small (but mighty!) startup, and we may change these rules as we continue to grow. 

Now the ultimate goal is to get to a point where Tiger Teams aren’t needed or aren’t as disruptive so that they aren’t pulling focus from key business drivers. This is a critical issue to look out for as a leader because it signals that you may not be solving the root problem and that a larger change is necessary. 

I’ll leave you with a few of the names of our Tiger Teams - if you have some interesting names or stories about your Tiger Teams, please feel free to leave a comment.

Seal Team SIP, T3 (Tiger Test Team), MET (Metropolitan Masters of Art) & Whiskey War Room. 

Andrei Papancea

Andrei is our CEO and swiss-army knife for all things natural language-related.

He built the Natural Language Understanding platform for American Express, processing millions of conversations across AmEx’s main servicing channels.

As Director of Engineering, he deployed AWS across the business units of Argo Group, a publicly traded US company, and successfully passed the implementation through a technical audit (30+ AWS accounts managed).

He teaches graduate lectures on Cloud Computing and Big Data at Columbia University.

He holds a M.S. in Computer Science from Columbia University.