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  • Paul Glass

learn from geese

High performing teams have learned from geese.

Countless leadership models and theories have been written on how to create high performing teams. Instead of buying another ‘gurus’ book or course, look up to the geese and learn to fly for free.

What makes geese such a good example of a team?

Geese offer more than just a metaphor

Over many years facilitating team building activities and programme start up workshops with new groups of people, I usually ask participants to share an example of a high performing team they admire, and why?

The examples they share very often relate to sports teams – which is not surprising. Elite sports teams especially, provide a recognisable example to others and a demonstrated level of success or achievement that we can all aspire to.

Rarely in such workshops, do participants share examples from the business world or the organisation itself, something that often surprises me and can provide valuable insights into their perception of teamwork in their everyday environment.

When I think of an example of a high performing team, I find few better practical or relevant examples than that of geese - they offer a strong visualisation of a team, and much we can learn from and aspire to be.

For self-organising teams especially often working in transformation programmes and projects I have found the example of the geese to be highly relevant, but they also have been used to inspire some of those elite sports teams that are often given as examples when I ask my question.

I always look for those who give Manchester United as an example, knowing that Alex Ferguson - one of the most successful leaders and football managers of all time, with an exceptional record of decades of elite level achievement, also used the example of the geese with his teams.

"I’m going to tell you the story about the geese which fly 5,000 miles. They fly in V-formation, but the second ones don’t fly. They’re the subs for the first ones. And then the second ones take over – so it’s teamwork" Sir Alex Ferguson – former Manchester United Manager

There are numerous leadership models and theories relating to high performing teams, but the geese provide a powerful example of team attributes with a strong visual reference, that is easy to grasp and guide you when facing a journey ahead as a team. You do not need to refer to theory, when such a clear visualisation of a high performing team exists to keep you on course.

When creating our evolvereia logo, we wanted it to represent many elements relating to transformation - the V shape formation of the geese was one of those elements, representing how we work as a team with clients, and that you can’t stay still in a changing climate to be successful.

Geese thrive by flying in a constant climate of change

When growing up in the north of Scotland – I often saw and heard huge flocks of geese flying overhead - twice a year, and each time flying in opposite directions to that I had seen before. As a youngster I really did not think they were so clever - ‘daft noisy birds’ I would say - why not stay in the same place? there is plenty of food for them here? Why not save all that energy - surely that must be easier? - it would for sure be much quieter for us all!

My grandfather often spoke with me about these ‘daft noisy birds’, and how much I could learn from them. And this was the first business lesson that I had - if we choose because it’s easier to stand still in a continually changing climate, then we do not thrive or survive. The geese had to constantly make these long and hard journeys to survive and be healthy, through changing their position in their current climate - and that this was only possible by working together as one to achieve that.

It could possibly explain my career long passion and focus about business and transformation - using the ability to adapt to change as your advantage, and the importance of people in making that happen.

Learning from geese

Fly further by working together

The V shape formation used by geese enables them to fly over 70% further than if flying alone. They do this by breaking wind resistance for each other, so that they can travel further with the same energy.

When there are more geese on one side of the V, it’s the birds putting their resources into the prevailing wind, not only are they strengthening their collective ability to break the wind resistance together, it allows them to keep going in the direction they planned to travel in and not be blown off track.

The parallel to high performing teams is clear, it can mean that fewer resources are needed to reach further, if each is working truly for the benefit of the other in reaching that common goal.

A team member out of line with the group ethic of togetherness, will feel greater resistance, reducing not only their performance but that of the group, this resistance reminds all about the value of working as one team to be successful.

To be successful the team also needs a level of agility in applying their resources in responding the inevitable pressures that can put a project off track.

Fly stronger as a team of leaders

Each bird takes their turn to lead the V formation, and in doing so uses more effort to break the wind resistance for the benefit of the flock to each fly with less effort.

When the leading bird tires, the formation is changed by it stepping out of the lead and returning to the rear of the flock where the resistance is most broken, giving that bird and the flock the chance to still move forward, with another bird taking the lead.

It can often be the case that organisations and project groups define and allocate fixed roles to people e.g. ‘project leader’, rather than take advantage of the teams different leadership strengths or capabilities, that can be deployed at different times in a project lifecycle to most effectively lead a given stage.

These demands can be very different over such a lifecycle, and rotational leadership that is based on best use of the teams individual capabilities and strengths, can greatly advance the efficiency and effectiveness of an organisation or group in reaching its goals.

Fly faster by having one clear direction

Geese do not have maps or a project plan to show them the way to reach their destination. As each bird will be a leader of the flock at some stages, they each instinctively know their roles, when flight should take place, the direction to fly and the landmarks that confirm their progress to their end destination.

In a high performing team, there is often a high degree of intuition and instinctiveness that guides the day to day progress. This is often achieved through investing heavily at the ‘front end’, to provide a deep and profound understanding of the direction and goals that guide a team to achieve these objectives.

The degree of planning and follow up necessary or used in an organisation or group can often serve to demonstrate the existence of this level of clarity. Of course a degree of this is necessary in the real world, but excessive planning and follow up can prove bureaucratic and counterproductive, swallowing large amounts of resources, and even worse to slow down the capability to act or make decisions at speed to reach a defined end destination.

Fly better by constant communication and feedback

Geese are very noisy birds in flight, with good reason. When flying as a flock in V formation the geese communicate constantly to those ahead of them. This honking not only is made to motivate the group, but also informs those in front that those at the rear can fly faster. When landing to rest, the honking switches to form a flock consensus on the suitability of their place of rest – communication by geese is a constant feedback loop and decision-making process.

Often communication in an organisation or project comes top down, which can lead to little or distant engagement in others following. The geese example shows the value of two-way communication, where the capacity to move faster or make decisions can be strengthened by listening and acting to others not in the lead.

When leading it can be hard to also be a ‘end receiver or user’ – there can be a huge value from the involvement and voice of such people in project groups and in making change happen successfully.

Fly with togetherness and care for each other

Geese have an incredible ethic towards caring for each other. When a bird fails during flight, the flock does not stop its journey – they reorganise and continue. However, the ill bird is not disregarded and left on its own. Two birds will accompany the ill bird to look after it and help it recover. If possible, they will afterwards fly hard to re-join the flock, or when it’s not possible, then the geese will find a new flock to join and fly with.

Often in intensive projects or change, there can be a high burn out rate or different levels of active engagement. Such situations are not only detrimentally impacting the individual but also that of the team. It’s important that there is an environment of looking out for each other, helping each other where one is struggling on a specific activity or objective for the greater good of the team.

Giving those who are failing the safe space to communicate their issues without fear - fosters a more cohesive and open team dynamic, with ultimately greater benefits. Real togetherness is one of the most important qualities any team can have – but also one of the most challenging to achieve.

Applying the learnings in practice

Self-organised and governed teams offer the greatest transformational ability

There are various ‘performance’ levels in which a team operates and can be characterised: starting from a group that ‘cooperates’, to a team who ‘collaborate towards a shared purpose’. High performing teams are usually characterised by being self-organising, having ownership of the how, and having a whole team involvement.

The example of the geese bring value to any team, but especially so in the context of self-organised or governed teams who determine how they will respond to their environment - in business transformation these teams offer the greatest transformational capabilities – so to be successful - fly like the geese.

#HighPerformingTeams #LearnFromGeese #FlyFurther

#BusinessInsights #Evolvereia

Paul Glass - Founder of evolvereia

evolvereia Blog - Learning from Geese
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evolvereia gives businesses an end-to-end transformation concept based on proven methodologies and tools, using our experience from some of the world’s leading innovative companies, to help and coach businesses to achieve their transformation goals and increase value growth.

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