Tiger Teams, Task Forces, and Councils, Oh My!

“I’d like you to be a part of a new initiative we’re kicking off,” I said into the phone. “We’re forming a tiger team.”

“Uh…a what?” he asked after a brief pause. It was the very same response that I had given when asked to lead a red team some years earlier.

There are a few tools that we use in business to drive focus and accelerate progress in ways that go beyond business as usual. Each runs a bit differently, depending on the scope and intent.

Task Force. A task force often comes together to tackle an urgent problem requiring a coordinated response. For instance, many businesses and governments pulled together COVID-19 task forces last year to centralize the information flow and decision-making process for employee safety, workforce communications, economic recovery, and more. At IBM we mobilized the COVID-19 Technology Task Force in March 2020, bringing together people and technology from all across the company to help accelerate discovery, provide trusted information, and enable resiliency and adaptation. We recognized the urgency of the crisis and the need to team across boundaries to provide value to businesses, governments, and citizens around the world. At the start, the team met daily as we defined priorities and opportunities, and later less frequently as we began to roll out capabilities like detailed virus tracking, contact tracing, and a medical literature navigator.

Tiger Team. A tiger team is a small, agile, specialized group charged with a mission-critical task. The Apollo 13 Tiger Team was marshaled in response to the service module malfunction, eventually succeeding in bringing the astronauts safely home. In business, a tiger team is a purpose-built team of individuals who bring different skills to the table and work together, usually in a dedicated way, to solve or investigate a critical issue. A few years ago, I assembled a tiger team at IBM Research to help us drive an organizational transformation and lay out our strategy for growth. I tapped four individuals from different areas of our business, coming from different markets, with complementary skills, who co-located for this two-month, dedicated activity. The focused attention, drive, and extraordinary capabilities of this team helped us chart the course for our business to increase innovation and impact and get the buy-in and support of our community. More recently we have run virtual tiger teams, leveraging digital collaboration tools to bring teams together to solve complex problems.

Red Team. A red team is a special type of tiger team — one that takes a contrarian or provocative point of view. Often used in cybersecurity and the military — where awareness of threats is essential to preparedness — a red team plays the role of the enemy, identifying vulnerabilities and enabling continuous improvement. I am fascinated by the story of the secretive Israeli Intelligence unit codenamed Ipcha Mistabra, which means on the contrary or maybe the opposite is true. The sole purpose of this elite unit, formed after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, is to challenge prevalent assumptions within intelligence bodies — to be the devil’s advocate. In business we form red teams to make critical thinking a part of our business practices, to avoid the group think or echo chamber effects that can run rampant in organizations. This work may be controversial, requiring thick skin and a willingness to speak truth to power. About ten years ago I led a red team tasked with identifying how IBM could remain successful without semiconductor manufacturing inside the company, work that pre-dated the eventual sale of IBM’s microelectronics business by several years. It was a fascinating and difficult project that forced us to think differently, against the prevailing views at the time.

For all of these, it is essential to pay careful attention to the composition of the team. Too often organizations default to the usual suspects when selecting individuals for choice roles. A mix of skills, experiences, and backgrounds improves the quality of innovation and overall results. Plus, an assignment like this is a perfect proving ground for up-and-coming leaders to gain valuable experience, move outside their comfort zone, and earn visibility. These same people can be advocates for the work once it concludes, going back to their home organizations with a deep understanding and appreciation for the intent and the outcomes, able to bring others along on the journey.

The work of these teams should be biased toward action. Drive for tangible outcomes that have lasting impacts on an organization, business, employees, and clients. Start with a wide aperture: solicit ideas from multiple sources, study prior work, ask provocative questions. Then, as quickly as reasonable, focus the work on a few meaningful actions. Test ideas and iterate based on feedback. An executive sponsor can guide and champion this work, ensuring others recognize the significance and driving adoption of the recommendations. Eventually, the team should be disbanded. A temporary, focused initiative cannot go on indefinitely — you simply can’t maintain the high level of intensity for too long.

Council. If you want a sustained effort, consider instead forming a business council — a standing body with ongoing responsibility and support. The council might rotate team members periodically, select different focus projects each term, and evolve depending on the makeup and interest of council members. In order to pivot our 2020 IBM Research Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to something more permanent and self-sustaining, we launched the 2021 Diversity and Inclusion Council as a long-standing body responsible for ensuring IBM Research is leveraging our innovation and influence to make meaningful changes in support of diversity, inclusion, and racial justice. Often council members self-nominate for their part-time involvement, so it’s a great way to solicit interest and ensure passionate contributors. Typically, there is less urgency and more longevity associated with councils; it is helpful to have a clear charter, documented operating principles, and established communication channels to enable handoffs between members of different tenures.

Participating on a task force, tiger team, red team, or council can be extremely rewarding. It’s a big commitment, sometimes high pressure, and often intense. But there is a special satisfaction in being part of a small team focused on solving an urgent problem, where you can experience how tight-knit bonds with a few colleagues enable large-scale impact.

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