10 Sep

What’s good for the goose isn’t good for a startup

Geese flying in V formationMind of an entrepreneurThe mind of the startup specialist works differently from that of the traditional CEO or employee of a medium or large enterprise. A serial entrepreneur or startup specialist thrives on the edge of uncertainty, balks at the shackles of orthodox structures and constantly sweeps the horizon for new challenges to tackle and fresh problems to troubleshoot. The fabric of a startup is homologous to the mindset of a startup specialist; its people, their tenacious independence, the optimally efficient processes and the lean, mean agility reflect the nature of a serial entrepreneur.

So I was a bit baffled when, at a recent management-level meeting, I came across a presentation that likened the functioning of a startup to that of a flock of birds flying in a ‘V’ formation. A ‘V’ formation (sometimes called a skein) is the symmetric V-shaped flight formation of flights of geese, ducks, and other migratory birds. The contrast may have gone largely unnoticed by the audience (such presentations are crammed to the gills with cliched “motivational” analogies that would cause the eyes of a ferret on crystal meth to glaze over), but for the fact that the speaker proceeded to explain why a startup was similar to a skein.
According to Wikipedia (and the speaker), “the ‘V’ formation greatly boosts the efficiency and range of flying birds, particularly over long migratory routes. All the birds except the first fly in the upwash from the wingtip vortices of the bird ahead. The upwash assists each bird in supporting its own weight in flight, in the same way a glider can climb or maintain height indefinitely in rising air. In a V formation of 25 members, each bird can achieve a reduction of induced drag by up to 65% and as a result increase their range by 71%.” The “lesson” to be learned was apparently that each member of the startup must “assist” the members “behind” him (or her) – provide the lift so that the member at the back can fly in formation with less effort.
The analogy immediately struck me as absurd – its fallacies stark, and its reasoning peppered with more holes than Swiss cheese. Here’s why:

    1. No innovation: The birds in the formation are so focused on flying in formation and in concert, that they have no scope to improve or innovate. Their only objective is to fly longer using less overall energy; it’s not to enrich their unit or species. They wouldn’t be looking for, or know, if there were a more efficient way of flying or a better way of capturing prey (food) midair. The lack of innovation is a death knell to a startup – a startup needs to constantly, quickly and efficiently innovate and improve to stay ahead of its competition.
    2. Promotes mediocrity: While an individual bird may be capable of astounding feats of aerial acrobatics, to weave and soar in the skies, as part of the unit, it cannot display that agility and flexibility. Instead, for the good of the unit, they must refrain from any form of personal excellence. That’s not how a startup excels – a startup is made of rock stars, all of whom push their individual envelopes to the limit.

Duck hunting

  1. Open to attack: Any hunter will tell you that birds flying in the ‘V’ formation are the easiest to shoot and kill. The birds are so focused on flying in formation, so focused on the wingtips of the bird in front of them, that they fail to notice attacks from below (hunters) and above (other birds of prey). Similarly, startups that are focused on processes (formation) and hierarchy (wingtip of the bird in front) are quickly and ruthlessly engulfed by larger or more agile or more innovative companies.
  2. Carry non-performing resources: A skein is made up of birds who are trying to use as less energy as possible to sustain themselves for as long as possible. They depend on the bird in front of them to carry them forward, and waste precious resources in ensuring that the resource behind them is not putting in 100% of effort. Any startup specialist will tell you that a non-performing member is an anathema to the good of the startup – a parasite. A startup has precious, limited resources, and it’s a criminal waste to expend them on members who are depending on others to do their work for them.
  3. Leader does all the heavy lifting: If the skein model must be used, it’s apparent that the leader must put in 100% of effort, while the rest put in considerably less effort. The leader has to “take point”, expend the most energy, provide the most value and provide all the direction. If the same model were to be applied to a startup, the CEO would be the only one providing guidance, direction, mentorship and leadership, and the only one putting in 100% effort. But as we know, in a successful startup, everyone is putting in a 110%, all the time, doing everything needed to make the startup work.
  4. Leaders aren’t switchable: In a skein, birds switch the “leader” role when the leading bird is exhausted. This technique of “leapfrogging” ensures that there is no constant leader, and no one is constantly tired. If startups followed this model, the CEO would need to be changed ever so often or risk the startup burning out, and runnning out of steam, direction and leadership. Either that, or everyone would need to be the CEO, programmer, tester, system administrator, office boy and chief bottle washer.
  5. No specialists: In a skein, you don’t see a bird that specializes in flying faster, a bird that specializes in thwarting attacks, a bird that specializes in communicating with other birds, a bird that maintaining formation, etc. All birds in the skein are jacks of all trades (or more like the seven of clubs), but masters of none. All this does it to make them good at going long distances, but nothing else. A single bird in the skein cannot afford to specialize, at the risk of jeopardizing the entire unit. In a startup, the lack of specialization means no innovation, no growth, no improvement and no job satisfaction.
  6. No room for independence or self-expression: I’m reminded of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” written by Richard Bach, a fable about a seagull learning about life and flight, and a homily about self-perfection. The book tells the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a seagull who is bored with the daily squabbles over food. Seized by a passion for flight, he pushes himself, learning everything he can about flying, until finally his unwillingness to conform results in his expulsion from his flock. An outcast, he continues to learn, becoming increasingly pleased with his abilities as he leads an idyllic life. This could never happen in a skein, but in a startup, individual members are always encouraged to become independent and innovative.
  7. Subsisting vs. Blossoming: The goal of the skein is to survive and subsist, so that the members can transfer their genes to their successors. Over time, the techniques of survival may improve or become refined, but the basic goal remains the same – to not die. Also over time, the unit can travel longer distances, but doesn’t change, morph or evolve into something better. A startup cannot afford to simply “stay alive” and pass on its “genes” to subsequent members. A startup needs to constantly evolve, improve and morph into something better, faster, sleeker and more powerful.

There is an alternate reason for the ‘V’ formation – clear visual contact. But that too has several fatal flaws. Again, Wikipedia describes the reason as follows:

Visual contact is why V formations (and the asymmetric echelon formations) [were] also commonly adopted by flights of military aircraft engaged on a common mission.

The basic flight formation for military aircraft in many air forces during World War II was a V formation. In the U.S. Army Air Forces, the most basic formation for bombers was a three-plane “V” called an “element”. Stacks of these elements were configured to form a defensive bombing formation called the “combat box”. The standard fighter unit, early in World War II, for the British Royal Air Force was the V shaped “vic”. This involved one lead plane and two wingmen, with the wingmen flying very close to the sides and slightly behind the lead plane to form the V shape. Typically four vics would fly together one after another to form a squadron. The problem with the vics were the formations were so tight that the wingmen had to constantly be watching the lead plane or risk running into them. This left only the lead plane to search the skies for enemy planes. After many complaints from the British pilots of the vics not being the optimal flying formation, the RAF Fighter Command changed the squadron formation so the fourth vic would weave back and forth theoretically giving them a better field of view. This resulted in the “weavers” as they were called being picked off because the German fighters could attack them and get away before the rest of the squadron could leave formation and be ready for a counterattack. The Germans called these vics Idiotenreihen (“rows of idiots”). Later in the war the RAF Fighter Command abandoned the vic formations in favor of the Finger-four formation that the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) used.

There you have it. The only other reason for the ‘V’ formation is “shot down” too (pun intended). No matter what the scenario, a skein is not the right model for a startup. Perhaps a more appropriate or accurate model would be that of a pod of dolphins. But that’s another blog post.

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