Imagine a flock of birds flying in a V-formation, travelling thousands of miles together against the resistance of the wind. Have you ever wondered why they do this and how this could possibly be relevant to your business?
Alignment is the most efficient way to fly, and a strategy your team can also employ as it tackles challenges. But, unfortunately, teams sometimes get out of alignment; infighting develops, frustrations flare, and projects get derailed.
The brilliance of the V-formation is that synchronized movements allow each bird to ride the windbreak of the other birds in front of them. Or in the case of your team, people work together, leveraging each individual’s unique skills, to move efficiently towards a common goal. Here are five strategies you can learn from the birds to get your disgruntled teams back in alignment.
1) Find each person’s sweet spot.
When birds fly in formation, they intrinsically know the sweet spot to occupy behind another bird as it flaps its wings. They use this uplift to travel more efficiently, and exponentially increase their flying range while using less energy than if each bird flew alone.
To do our most effective work, we must uplift each other by offering encouragement. This happens when managers empower employees to live in their zones of genius, using their unique talents, strengths, and skills. Just as an individual bird flying out of formation gets exhausted, employees that try to “do it all” will struggle and eventually fail. Take stock of each person’s individual strengths, then create a plan to leverage these strengths to reach a common goal.
Just as an individual bird flying out of formation gets exhausted, employees that try to “do it all” will struggle and eventually fail.
Maybe one person is great at big picture thinking, while someone else is more comfortable creating deliverables, and another person is great at keeping people on task in meetings. And when individuals are working doing the work for which they are best suited, teams just work.
2) Share leadership responsibilities.
In a 5,000 mile round-trip migration, every bird takes its turn leading the front of the V to take the brunt of the wind and carry the flock towards their destination so no one burns out. And so every member of a team should have the opportunity to take a leadership role.
People often confuse titles with leadership, but the qualities of true leadership can be found anywhere in an organization. Managers should take stock of their employees and spot the leaders among teams. These key employees take initiative, inspire and encourage others, and positively impact productivity and morale.
Take time to acknowledge the leadership skills of these employees, asking how you can support them in their leadership roles. Also, make sure their leadership skills don’t come across as bossy or top-down, because that will have a negative impact on their teams – and remember to encourage everyone to lead in the areas they’re most successful. The birds figured out shared leadership a long time ago. Adopting a similar culture in the office creates a positive enthusiasm among teams that leads to solid results.
3) Clearly communicate objectives.
Humans, of course, don’t understand what birds are saying to each other when they squawk and chirp in flight, but we know these sounds help them remain in communication with one another throughout the trip. To choreograph their movements to fly efficiently as a group, each bird must monitor subtle changes in wingmates flight patterns, altering their own strokes accordingly. Making sounds likely helps birds with these continual adjustments.
To assimilate this tip from the birds, teams need to communicate constantly to stay on course – not just once a quarter during ‘reviews’. Checking in with each other via email, an employee feedback platform, and/or in person is paramount to staying aligned on goals. Continual communications helps individuals understand where they fit in the big picture, and helps them prioritize tasks to line up with the company’s greater mission.
Of course, communication is also essential to deliver encouragement and coaching. Positive reinforcement inspires everyone to work towards a common goal – delivering a product, solving a sticky customer issue, or finalizing a plan. Who knows, maybe all those birds are calling out the equivalent of: “I believe in you! We can do this!”
Continual communications helps individuals understand where they fit in the big picture, and helps them prioritize tasks to line up with the company’s greater mission.
4) Build trust when times get tough.
Something beautiful happens in a migrating flock when a bird is sick or wounded: two of the birds drop out of formation to assist, aid and protect their fellow member until the bird can fly again. They are a team, all in it together. A team is a formation of trusted relationships, fostering natural accountability. This is the basis of success.
Unfortunately, many work teams don’t function like this. If one person is struggling, people sometimes gang up on that person and feel “let down” that he is not pulling his weight. They complain about this person to management, and feel burdened to have to take on more of the work.
Instead, when situations arise when one team member is struggling, managers should take time to find out what is happening and why. When people fall short, think of it as an opportunity to build trust and inspire better work. Ask the person what is going on and together discover ways to improve performance. That might mean shifting the person’s role (see tip #1), or inspiring that person to take on more of a leadership role (see tip #2). Working through hardships together builds stronger teams.
5) Rally around shared values.
One thing perfectly clear about migrating birds is they are all flying in the same direction. Teams are most effective when people are purpose-driven and feel they share a common mission. Beyond this shared end-goal, the best teams have the same vision of how to get to this end-point. In other words, they are aligned at every step of the way.
To align your team around common goals, it helps to create core values for your company. For example, our core values include supporting health and vitality; a commitment to customer success and delight; keeping things simple; embracing freedom and flexibility; holding one another accountable; and committing to constant learning and growth.
This might seem like overkill, but every value flows together into one main premise: we believe in supporting each individual to achieve his or her unique greatness. Living this ethos, our teams are aligned on not just their goals, but how to achieve them.
Productive teams work together through communication, alignment, and trust. They leverage the power of the collective to be greater than the sum of their parts. These strategies aren’t just for the birds, so the next time your teams get stuck, take a lesson from the experts in flight and create alignment for long-term success.