Friday, July 27, 2007

More Lessons From the Animal Kingdom

I was watching the Tour de France yesterday and saw as the riders drafted in straight lines in order to help out the other riders on their team. As a cyclist I understand the philosophy of drafting; let someone do the hard work while you reap the benefit until it is your turn to lead. While watching this I wondered why cyclists don’t ride in the V pattern we see migrating birds fly in. What I have always been told is that birds fly in this particular pattern so that, much like cyclists, one bird takes on the hard work until they tire and then fall back in the pattern so that they can benefit off of another leader. What I found out was shocking to me because it dispels everything I thought I knew about birds in formation, yet enlightened me in the rules of the migration.

In fact, the lead bird is not leading until they tire and then falling back into formation, instead by flying in formation every bird is subjected to the same amount of air friction as their neighbor. The advantage that is created to the birds by flying in this formation is called a “wingtip vortex”. What is a “wingtip vortex” you ask. Well, on the downstroke a bird displaces the air downward and on the upstroke the air is displaced upwards (upwash). By working together the volume of air around the bird remains the same, and by flying in the upwash each bird stays in flight using less lifting power. Because of this, flying in a V formation balances everything out so that each bird is using the same amount of energy while in formation, which amounts to much less energy then if they were to fly solo. Unlike cyclists, birds actually have a code where everyone must put out equal effort no matter their status; it’s only fair.

In the middle of the V is where the least amount of resistance is, but in migration that space is left only for those birds that are either sick or weaker than the rest of the group, it is not for a bird looking for a free ride. This particular spot got me to thinking about how we interact with other humans in the workplace. We typically have a formation that we operate in, it is called roles. The problem with our roles is that they are structured in a hierarchy that usually makes someone work harder than the rest of the group. By doing this we are creating a greater strain on those within the hierarchy. As we make it near the top we feel the strain of working harder because we have more responsibility, ultimately leading to new pressures and stresses. In essence we allow others to draft until they are ready to lead instead of demanding that each and every person on the team puts in maximum effort.

By putting in the same amount of effort we diminish the need for someone to take the glory for a successful venture. Lance Armstrong won 7 Tour de France titles, yet to the average person, none of them can name the other members of his team. Therefore Lance gets all of the glory for a group of people that in theory worked harder than he did during the event. In business, like sports, we give the glory to the top performer instead of creating a group of top performers and sharing the glory. If our goal is to make our life better, then we need to rely on everyone we are associated with to work just as hard as we do. We need to make sure that nobody is looking to draft or fly in the center of the formation, but is willing to share the load with the rest of us. Once we can create this dynamic, much like birds in migration, there will be no room for individual achievement because success will truly be a group effort, where each involved party put in the full and equal amount of themselves.

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