Tiger Team

What's the origin of this phrase?

By Deane Barker

A 1964 paper entitled “Program Management in Design and Development” for an aerospace conference introduced this term as:

a team of undomesticated and uninhibited technical specialists, selected for their experience, energy, and imagination, and assigned to track down relentlessly every possible source of failure in a spacecraft subsystem or simulation

“Undomesticated and uninhibited” is an interesting turn of phrase. The implication is that a tiger team is a bunch of smart people given free reign to do what they do best.

The above description was prefaced with “if the term ‘tiger team’ is unfamiliar to you, it has been described as…” which implies that the term existed prior to this.

An article entitled “Understanding the tiger team approach” said:

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. During the Apollo 13 lunar landing mission, part of the Service Module malfunctioned and exploded. NASA formed a select technical team tasked with solving the issue and bringing the astronauts safely home. This “Tiger Team” later won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their work on that successful mission.

A Google NGram search has some small activity earlier to the 60s, but usage took off then. It seems commonly accepted that the term came to prominence during the heydey of the 60s space race.

Another seemingly commonly-accepted characteristic of a tiger team is that its charter is specific – it exists to solve a specific problem – and that it disbands after the job is done.

Why the word “tiger”? I couldn’t figure that out. It’s probably something motivational, or related to the idea that a tiger stalks its prey. (Does it, though? Lions do, because the Serengeti is flat, open plains. But tigers live in the jungle.)

Then again, maybe we just like the alliteration?

Why I Looked It Up

I’ve heard the term for years, and everyone seems to know what it means, just from context, which got me wondering.

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