United They Fly, Divided They Fall

A relative of mine is an expert in physics, and has long appreciated the way that the principles of physics operate in nature. His attention was captured one day as he watched geese flying in formation as they migrated south. Flying in a V-formation, the geese seemed to move so effortlessly through the air, even with a headwind.

His curiosity was piqued, and he made a trip to a local aviary to learn more about migrating geese. While he learned enough to make some calculations about the efficiency of the V-formation, he also learned about the instinctive behavior of these geese and how they have learned to work as a team.

He discovered from the experts at the aviary that geese fly in a V-formation because as the bird in front flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird behind, making his flight more efficient. In fact, he calculated that geese flying in the proper formation will expend 70% less energy flying the same distance as compared to a bird flying alone.

Thus, in this natural setting, geese have been conditioned to work as a team in order to work more efficiently. But what was most startling to him was the "rules" of V-formation flight that naturalists have observed over many years of observation and study, and the real life applications of those rules for the vastly inferior human teams to which we all belong.

Consider the following:

1. Given the laws of physics, whenever a geese falls out of formation, it experiences the natural resistence of the air currents that it avoids if it stays in formation. This is true also in human groups. In order for teams to be effective, each member must carry his or her own load. When a maverick leaves the formation of the group, it is usually the maverick that pays the price.

2. Whenever the goose that has been at the apex of the V begins to tire, he or she finds a place elsewhere in the V and allows another goose to fly in the lead. In human teams, leaders often tire or burnout. It is to the benefit of the entire group for the group to avoid burnout for any member, and rotating leadership, or at least spreading the workload around makes the team more efficient.

3. The naturalists my relative spoke with observed that most of honking of the geese occurred from the geese in the back of the V, while those up front focused more on flying and less on honking. You may be thinking that this sounds a lot like a team you know where the folks doing less of the work have more time to complain. But in the V formation, the lead geese tend to be encouraged by the honking, and it becomes a positive force. In human teams, we should look for opportunities to encourage the members of the team, especially those that are bearing the heaviset burdens. Members of effective teams support each other, in both obvious and more subtle ways.

4. Finally, my relative asked the naturalists what happens when a goose becomes incapable of staying the with the formation. What if one is wounded, sick or unable to keep its role in the team? The answer also startled my relative. When a goose fails to stay with the team, two other geese in the team leave the formation and follow the slower goose down. They remain with the goose until he is either able to fly again or until he dies, then they either begin their own formation or catch up with the group. Again, here is a lesson for human teams. Each member is important; each member knows that he will be supported in time of need. This attitude in a human team breeds loyalty and compassion, and knowing that one is a valued member of the team makes one more willing to give his own loyalty and compassion to the others.

Often, nature is stranger than fiction. But the lessons in teamwork from the world of nature in observing migrating geese offer some excellent recommendations for improving the functioning of teams in the workplace, in the home and in many other team settings.