Animal Migrations – Ultimate Organisational Alignment?

March 19, 2014


You must be singularly immune to the blandishments of consultants and their training programs if you are unfamiliar with the analogy of migrating geese and the principles of teamwork.  The message is appealing – divide your employees up into small groups, adopt the characteristics of skeins of geese and the resultant team will be much more productive with members enjoying far higher levels of job satisfaction and having – dare I say it – more fun.

So is your organisation an exemplar of teamwork or have you found the theory hard to translate into practice?  If the latter, I know why.

In my Wagon Wheel Enterprise Operating Platform, team work is in fourth place on the list of key implementation factors and these are preceded by the first stage in the platform – Planning – deciding what it is you want to achieve and then working out how you are going to achieve it.  The fundamental prerequisite to great execution is Organisational Alignment.

The irony is that animal migrations, whether of wildebeest, birds or butterflies are excellent examples of organisational alignment but trainers and consultants have decided that there is far more appeal in the linkage between geese on the wing and team work than there is between butterflies and organisational alignment.  The former stirs the emotions; the latter merely appeals to the rational.

Dingle, an evolutionary biologist, identified five characteristics that distinguish migration from other forms of mass movement.

■          Persistence

■          Linearity

■          Undistractibility

■          Special start and stop behaviours

■          Stored energy

His hypothesis was that these features are present, to a greater or lesser extent, in all animal migrations.  They are also present in successful organisations.


Take bar headed geese for example.  Every year, these geese migrate from lowland India to breed on the Tibetan plateau.  To achieve this, they cross the Himalayas, reaching an altitude of 21,000ft for certain with unconfirmed reports that they have been observed above Everest (29,029ft).  Why fly across the Himalayas when they could outflank them?  It’s hereditary behaviour – it’s hard wired into them.  What we might call organisational culture.


Migrating animals travel with a purpose.  They don’t meander around.  They confront obstacles and overcome them.  Their focus is on the larger purpose – the organisational goal.


Migratory animals act in unison – they are all focused on the journey.  They act as one.  They are aligned with one another.  They don’t go off and do their own thing just because it suits them.

Special start & stop behaviours

Whilst animal migrations are instinctive, they are also carefully planned.  The animals gather in the same place, they depart at the same time and they agree on the destination so all know when they have arrived.

Stored energy

If you are a bar headed goose then you will eat voraciously before the flight.  But not only do you store energy, you have developed the physiology and strategies to conserve it.  You have the species’ highest ratio of wing area to weight to maximise lift at high altitudes.  You have a preference for flying to the highest altitudes at night since the air is denser at low temperatures and this helps lift.  You use thermals to gain altitude and conserve energy.  On the physiology front, you are capable of extracting more oxygen from the oxygen depleted air found at high altitudes and using it more efficiently than your lowland cousins.  In short you have developed and acquired the resources necessary to turn your planned migration into reality.

To summarise, therefore, every goose appreciates where they are before the migration; every goose knows the destination and understands the strategies required to get there and, lastly, every goose plays its part in achieving the goal.

Now if you substitute “organisation” for “goose”, you’ve pretty much defined what is meant by organisational alignment.

And the point is this.

90% of the reasons for the success of the migration occur before the geese take to the air.  The way they fly in their “V” formations is the final stage of execution that maximises the chances of all of them reaching the Tibetan plateau.

And so it is with organisations.  Without comprehensive and involving planning; without goals and objectives; without a realistic plan of action; without organisational alignment; without empathetic management of change; without leadership at all levels of your organisation, the empowerment of your employees through the development of teams and teamwork will simply not happen.

Instead, inspired by the grace of geese on the wing and won over by a seductive promise of organisational utopia, your employees will take flight prematurely, struggle to gain altitude, fly in ever decreasing circles, become ever more  frustrated and ultimately touchdown in much the same location they departed from.  They will then take on the characteristics of another bird – a melee of seagulls squabbling over the remains of your fish and chips.


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