Why It’s Important To Fly Outside The Formation

Geese fly in formation one behind the other. Their “V” shape or “echelon,” allows them to operate efficiently in all kinds of difficult conditions. But one problem remains: Wherever the lead bird goes, others instinctively follow. For teams and individuals, this isn’t always a good thing. What do you and your team do?

Do you–like geese following their mates–naturally just follow along? Or instead, do you intuitively look outside your team’s echelon? Do you look for new ways to increase efficiency and solve problems, while simultaneously improving your teammates and your bosses’ business?

Whichever culture you’ve chosen to either work in or lead, sets the tone that either makes learning plausible or implausible. But improving one’s self, while making a meaningful and positive contribution to others, is something many of us enjoy experiencing both at home and at work. It’s an intrinsic reward money can’t buy.

But are you establishing a culture that creates these opportunities for personal and professional improvement? Or are you instead living within a culture of command and control, where fear–not continuous improvement and respect for people– drives personal productivity and change?

The best leaders I’ve worked for encouraged individuals to leave the team’s echelon when the organization’s U-turns consistently took the company into wasteful turbulence and unchartered stormy cells. Permitting team members to leave that formation––to then challenge the leader’s direction––required skills, patience, and humility not in abundance today.

It also required evidence that team member’s suggested improvements were smarter and less wasteful than the bosses’ previous “best way” of doing things. Hard data, of indeed a more efficient system; a “better way” of accomplishing the same task.

That’s why places I enjoyed working, had a training process in place that enabled employees and leaders to consistently challenge one another’s thinking in a formalized setting. A setting within a culture that combined three aspects of cognitive learning:

  1. Observation by learning;
  2. Reproducing the activity by consistently repeating the behavior; and
  3. Self-efficacy, where the learner(s) improved their knowledge by putting the good change into consistent practice.

It was those executives who developed these consistent, cognitive learning opportunities for my team and I, who seemed to develop happier, more productive and collaborative teams. Teams, who in turn, consistently increased our company’s efficiency.

In addition, events that made this possible broke down the organization’s stymied thinking. And the training process itself challenged everyone’s thinking. It tested employee’s new assumptions against leadership’s old systemic theories––previously inferred to be the organization’s “best and only way,” to achieve specific outcomes.

As a result of participating and contributing in these events, I experienced how man’s curiosity, creativity, and cooperative nature, is utilized differently by effective leaders. The result of my team and I being able to use these “curious” attributes of our birth: People, culture, and productivity improved simultaneously.

Here’s how executives consistently made it work.

Whether it was personal or professional improvement, during training my team and I learned the benefits of a scientific approach to management. We became “mad”, but happy scientists.

We learned to create our own hypothesis; we studied it at length; we tested our ideas for improvement; we checked our work against our hypothesis, and then used that data to learn from our mistakes. Then we structured ongoing “good change” if our hypothesis was proven correct during the test phase.

Succeed or fail, any way you sliced it, we were learning something. We were detecting and correcting errors in our thinking and the organizations as well. That activity, not the labor itself, became the best part of being at work.

Five steps made this possible.


In the observation phase, executives and teams went, looked at and experienced problems together. They both peeked outside the standard American echelon of executive analytics, to instead, take a blue-collar approach to visually understanding problems and the impact they were having. Consistent visits to the place where things happened-a place and activity the Japanese refer to as the daily gemba walk were used to routinely engage those people most affected by wasteful activities to create solutions that eliminated the waste.


In the planning phase we created a future state–a vision of where the team would like to end up at the end of training. But we did so by thoroughly understanding the current state. We asked questions like: What objectives are we trying to achieve where less wasteful activities will exist in our future? What specific steps will we need to take to deliver the results to create the future state our team envisions?


Now it was time to act and begin implementing our plan by executing on the process improvements. This wasn’t time for the timid. It was time to make physical changes, in an environment meant to be challenging and structured, but fascinating. One where people’s curiosity and creativity was tested and always put to good use.

There was no standing around “waiting” for someone else during the “do” phase. It was time to make good change happen. If you were the occasional citizen against virtually everything, a “cave-man” as we jokingly called them, this was no place for you.


After we eliminated wasteful activities in the ‘Do” phase, we compared what our team thought, (the expected results) against what our team did, (the actual results of what we achieved). We kept this data and had it visually available for everyone, including management.

We knew from experience, people tended to revert back to their old habits when they were under pressure. So, seeing where future training needed to be emphasized would eventually help everyone form new habits needed to make a lasting change.

If we got improvements in efficiency, we took them. Ten percent of something was always better than one hundred percent of nothing.


The last step was formalizing our new habit. Our team created written, standardized work instructions to help everyone see and understand the new process. It also helped the team see how to get back on track when they get under pressure.

If the team achieved their goal by proving their hypothesis was a reality, we would consider wide-spread implementation of our now proven hypothesis to other areas.

Training leaders and employees to follow standardized processes in problem solving, improves employee instincts and forms new habits. It also nurtures people and encourages them to continuously improve.

Like geese first learning to fly outside the echelon, active problem solving––through learned, new, habitual behaviors––has to begin somewhere. Encouraging leaders to learn different approaches to problem solving, and then transmitting those approaches throughout the organization, is an important contribution we all can improve upon.

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