Give Your Digital Transformation to a Tiger Team

by Michael Colombo
Apr 24, 2019

The events of the Apollo 13 lunar mission gave us the second most famous phrase ever uttered from space, "OK Houston, we've had a problem here." For nearly a week in 1970, the world waited as NASA attempted to safely return three astronauts to earth from an ill-fated trip to our nearest celestial neighbor. The moment those words were spoken, the mission changed. And within the agency itself, the new mission centered on a small team of experts headed by Flight Director Gene Kranz and his “White Team” of space flight engineers. The media called them the “Tiger Team.” And it was on their shoulders that the fate of these three astronauts rested.

The tiger team wasn’t an exception though, they were a model. Huge problems are often solved in small teams. The science, in respect to the outperformance of small teams, is settled. And while there are a lot of reasons that contribute to this phenomenon - team dynamics can be notoriously multi-faceted - the conclusions are indisputable. Small teams perform better than large teams on any number of key fronts - communication and information sharing, accountability, productivity, creativity, etc.

Comprehending the Challenge: Landing a Digital Transformation

Digital transformation projects often feel like moon landings. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people are involved, all confined within many-layered reporting and accountability hierarchies. These constraints often lead to the instinctive, fallback strategy of many management teams to add more hands to somehow make the work lighter, more predictable, or more likely to succeed.

But there’s a big problem with this “throw bodies at it” line of thinking. Like landing on the moon, the expertise required to successfully land a digital transformation is extremely specific to the tasks at hand. Gene Kranz’s team had already landed people on the moon in the Apollo 11 mission. They’d been there before. Imagine if Kranz decided to throw bodies at the problem. Maybe a couple dozen project managers, some risk analysts, a lawyer or twelve. I’d bet that the Apollo 13 story wouldn’t have had the Hollywood ending that nabbed it nine Oscar nominations.

The truth here is hard to operationalize. We know that everyone is not equally informed, nor do they possess the same experience in solving difficult organizational, creative, or technical problems. But success in any area of digital transformation requires these skills in spades. That means that to succeed at digital transformation, companies will need to set aside the participatory cultures that have everyone trapped in conference rooms “collaborating.” Instead, they’ll need to get real about building tiger teams of highly skilled problem solvers, and then carve out the space for them to operate. This takes guts, and an unflinching commitment to the success of the mission.

Defining the Mission: The Design Team that Crafts the Vision

Building your tiger team for digital transformation begins with designers. Creative teams, like many other teams, have become over-specialized. Tiger teams are specialists, but they specialize in a broad range of adjacent disciplines. They wear many hats, which is what makes them nimble. Hyper-nuanced, discreetly defined roles don’t belong on your tiger team. It leads to bloated headcounts and sluggishness. Think of it this way, if there’s anyone on your design team that can’t design something you’d put in front of your customers, they don’t belong on your tiger team.

Ideally, your design team should possess research and UX skills, prototyping skills, traditional graphic design skills and, perhaps above all, communication skills. And these skills can’t be siloed among the team, as each designer needs to possess both a strong vision for the end-to-end customer experience and the skills to execute it. They also need to translate this vision through creative assets for both business and technology stakeholders.

Preparing for Launch: The Development Team that Delivers the Experience.

From those assets, technology teams need to execute world-class digital experiences. The developers face the most pressure. Technology is where the urge to add bodies is strongest. But, put on a path to success, four developers will deliver in six months what ten developers won’t deliver in two years. They often just need the right flight director.

Like designers, developers on tiger teams wear many hats. They embrace the challenge of engineering experiences, understand the impact of back-end technologies on a user’s perception of the experience, and they obsess about efficiency. Give them the tools and the infrastructure they need to move quickly, and they can destroy the bureaucracy that erodes morale.

Bringing it Home: The Delivery Team that Drives Mission Success

In addition to its impact on morale, bureaucracy adds significant variability to a project. And variability creates risk. Project managers on a tiger team understand this well because they’ve dealt with it a million times. Complex technology delivery is super difficult. It requires very good instincts and equally good judgement to make tradeoffs and compromises in the moment without sacrificing the vision. The delivery team can never lose sight of the MVP, while also maintaining ownership of that original vision.

Your tiger team needs project managers that are great communicators, relentless wall-breakers, and possess a detailed understanding of design and development processes. On a tiger team, the project managers aren’t gantt-managers or call-schedulers, they’re the coxswain of the team. They’re responsible for steering the boat and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers.

Digital transformation is not rocket science, but it’s close. The projects are high stakes, and there are more paths to failure than success. These projects should be led by small tiger teams with specialized skills and directly applicable experience who are given the mandate to move quickly and the space to succeed. “More bodies” is rarely a solution to big problems. Study after study has proven that out. Put the right people with the right skills in the right situation and watch how quickly big things can happen.

Mike is the founder of Maark and has served as the agency’s strategic, creative and technology lead in programs ranging from complete digital transformation of Fortune 500 clients, end-to-end relaunch of category-leading brands, and strategy, design and development of new digital products.

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