A lesson from birds

I spent a day with the leaders in my division recently at an off-site.  The focus of that day was not about technology but rather excellence in leadership and how we work together as an effective leadership team.  One of the anecdotes that I mentioned there was something I recently read related to migratory birds in flight. This study found that a large flock of birds in a V-formation can fly at least 70% further than a bird flying on its own.  They accomplished this significant efficiency due to several reasons.  Birds at the back of the V have to work much less by taking advantage of the draft that is created for them.  Accordingly, when a bird in the front of the V gets tired, it will drop out of the lead position and fall further back in order to rest.  As well, the V configuration improves visual contact and communication, minimizing the possibility of losing birds along the way since it has been observed that the stronger birds will drop back from the pack and escort sick or tired birds until they either recover or die. 


I like to tell this story because of how natural teamwork should be and the significant benefits that can be gained when there is good communication and clear vision of the group’s goals by all members.  However, this story also highlights the importance of individual excellence and leadership. Every bird in the V-formation at some point assumes the leadership role at the front of the V.  Similarly, each member of my leadership team has a key responsibility to drive the priorities and vision for the business area they own, while at the same time being able to understand how that fits into the overall vision of the Division and Microsoft. 



Comments (30)

  1. Garry Trinder says:

    So it’s time for some MSFT top managers to drop out of the lead positions and for some others to either die or recover ?

  2. S.Somasegar says:

    There is always the glass half-full or glass half-empty kind of thing.  I tend to look at what positive I can glean from something – to me that means the leadership team needs to work together effectively to be able to do the best and each person need to not only do what they have to do but pitch in as required to help others be succesful too.  That’s what I get from this anecdote.

    – somasegar

  3. Oran says:

    There’s a motivational poster on flying in formation: http://www.despair.com/daretoslack.html

  4. Lance Armstrong says:

    A better anecdote is a bicycle race.  The guy at the front does the work, someone in second place sprints around him and wins the race. 🙂

  5. willpantin says:

    I really like the analogy…!

    Unfortunately, as a nature lover, I can also just see the heartless hunters below the beautifully majestic V formation, ready to shoot the poor leader out of the sky.

    Punishment for being the strongest…?

    Seems to me life can be unfair, and does not always reward elegant efficiency…!

  6. BigJim in STL says:

    Also keep in mind that if you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes 😀

  7. Chetan says:

    What a good read. THANKS !!

  8. jay polam says:

    really good example, that really pertians in the real world

  9. hectorolivera says:

    good example but we have to be positive

  10. nisar says:

    Excellent somasegar

  11. superrcat says:

    I think that is a great analogy, but you also have to remember that migratory birds are not instructed on how to work together as a team; they instinctively function this way.

    Also, migratory birds each have a real stake with the migration, if they do not work together, they will die. They each see and understand that they have a vested interest to work together.

    They also show humility, when one bows out, there is another to help. Humility is hard to find in management.

    I think too often people are viewed as replaceable resources and no matter how much BS people will spew out about how they do not feel that way, it is inherit that profit, personal success and survival rule the day.

    If a bird falls out of formation completely, the birds do not stop to help…they keep flying to their destination.

  12. Siamak Tavakoli says:

    Nice to read.

    That reminded me a similar lesson I have learnt from birds hunting and flying away fish scenario. When the fish is so big, it generates terrible drag for even a strong bird! she consequently relocated the fish between her tarsus the way it generated the least drag, like she was surfing on air.

  13. daniel_sap says:

     It will be an interesting manoeuvre when the leading bird starts to fly in a wrong direction and than tries to fix this. Especially for some birds at the end;)

     Or what will happen if the leading bird starts to fly directly against the ground;)

     Or is it better to fly faster, when there is a ozone hole in front?

     Let’s try something more positive. Every bird peck the bird in front of it, so the whole flight doubles the speed 😉

     And the very important question – How the leading bird came to it’s leading place. How this happens in nature. Have we here analog as well.

    It seems to me, that hundreds of associations can be made with this anecdote. So I fly away 😉

  14. Bruce Wong says:

    In most companies in HK, programmers are just dogs–dogs that are a little bit more expensive than the general entry-level clerks.

  15. SBC says:

    The v-formation flying by birds is a learned pattern over the millions of years of evolution. We still have poor & irresponsible management in business and government – Birds learn better than Man!

    Management is also a self-centered phenomena – there are very few in top management that would take the blame for their organization (unless forced to by the law).

  16. I don’t think this really makes the point your trying to make.

    Birds cooperate because it is in their best interest to do so. Well, to be pedantic, it is in the best interest of *their genes* to do so (something that is a small disadvantage to me but a big advantage to my daughter may be selected for, as my daughter shares half of my genes).

    Teamwork works when the team has a common goal, incentive to work towards that common goal, and is *rewarded* for reaching the common goal.

    The last of those seems to be noticeably lacking at Microsoft in general and among leadership in particular.  We don’t reward people for the whole flock arriving at the destination, we reward them for how far they fly on their own, even if they led the flock in the wrong direction.

  17. R says:

    The analogy is fine… but you also have to be going in the right direction and not ‘just talking about it’.

    My main concern is pushing products out the door before its ready and then taking forever for the service packs… like Visual Studio 2005.

    You want to stand up and ‘crow’ about this…?

    I am beginning to have deep regards about the initial push within Microsoft and where this style is going to lead and push professional developers and the community.

    You should be old enough to consider that these tactics do come full circle especially where community effort is a big influence in this momentum and Microsoft is at the core for setting examples.

  18. S.Somasegar says:

    A lot of good discussion, comments and feedback here.

    I do agree completly that for this to work, teams should have a common set of goals, objectives and priorities and rewarded appropriately, etc.

    I also agree that "the right direction" is important.

    As we become more transparent and as involve the whole community, we do need appropriate change how we operate – do what we say and say what we do in a reasonably predictable manner.  That’s the desire and the intent and we need to continue heading that direction.

    – somasegar

  19. SBC says:

    The point I (tried to) make in my comment above (albeit facetiously) is that an organization has always got to be on a ‘learning mode’. Somehow in larger organizations – learning stops and complacency settles in.

    The lead-bird is in a ‘learning mode’ of the environment as his/her’s wing-tips constantly gauges the air currents, thermals, etc  and sets the direction for rest of the flock.

  20. S.Somasegar says:

    Yes – any individual or organization has always got to be on a "learning mode".  Including Microsoft, whenever we see people or teams get compacent, sooner or later bad things happen.

    – somasegar

  21. riddhi says:

    that was ver y inspring stuff to know everyone… as everyone will come across someone with whom he has to wrok…

    and to make that work productive this story would work at back but would have very important part..



  22. could you post more info on that birds study? (paper title, URL or something)

  23. .NET Geek says:

    Somasegar (a manager at Microsoft) makes an analogy between leadership and birds. Great read! Make sure…

  24. hamid m says:

    Can you give the source, for the sociologic life of migratory birds inside a V Formation ?


  25. Gafferl says:

    Nature does teach us lots of things. Whenever there is

    1. Heirarchy

    2. Territory

    3. Survival (Food etc)

    carnage is imminent.

    Current day management has all the three in terms of

    1. Authoriy

    2. Influence

    3. Rewards.

    Birds during their journey don’t fight for supermacy, but when they do, either one dies or becomes a prey for someone else.

    Also, birds don’t think about what will happen when they land at their destination. Humans do and that influences their flight.

    If only the rule was which ever bird was on the lead for the longest gets to live when they reach the other side, the journey with the V shape would be disastrous. Current day management and rewards work in this model.

    On top of this, if you try to make a flok with discrete types of birds, good luck to you. The vultures and the eagles would prey on the smaller ones during the flight to keep them going. This is again present day management. It is a discrete set of birds trying to flok together and collateral damage is imminent.

    It doesn’t matter how beautiful or skilled the prey was, if it is a prey and it lost it, it did!

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