An activity of the Primer Group


A Special Integration Group (SIG) of the
International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)
originally SGSR, Society for General Systems Research.






The Way Geese Fly

Tony Rizzo

Have you ever given it any thought, really? I'm talking about the way that geese fly. Each autumn countless flocks of geese grace the sky with willowy V-formations, as they strive to reach regions of the globe with better weather and more abundant feeding. But have you ever wondered why they fly in such lovely coordination? It has to do with local optimization. That's what it's all about, local optimization.

When we see an airborne V, we are observing the behavior of a successful system. But to understand the reason for that system's success, we need to look at the smallest component of the system. We need to look at the single, solitary goose. We also need to understand some very basic aerodynamics. Let's get past the aerodynamics first, then we'll be able to better understand the behavior of the individual goose.

It's a fact of life that anything with wings creates spirals of flowing air as it flies. These wisps of wind, called tip vortices, trail from the wingtips of whatever flies. The vortices circulate in opposite directions. The one that trails behind the left wing circulates clockwise. The tip vortex that trails from the right wing circulates counterclockwise. If you live near an airport, you may have seen such vortices trailing from the wingtips of landing aircraft on cool, humid days. They are quite fascinating to watch.

But if you were a goose, then your perception of tip vortices would be based on a completely different criterion. In fact, tip vortices would influence your flight position relative to the goose in front of you. Consider this. If tip vortices spin in opposite directions, with the left vortex spinning clockwise and the right vortex spinning counterclockwise, then the air directly behind a flying goose has a net motion downward. Directly behind each goose there exists a downwash. Imagine trying to flap your way south for a few thousand miles, with a downwash constantly trying to push you toward the ground. If you were a goose, and if you could find a more favorable position in which to fly, wouldn't you be very likely to fly there?

Well, there would be two such favorable positions relative to the goose ahead of you, if you were a flying goose. These would be slightly behind and to either side of the goose ahead. Remember those tip vortices? To the left or to the right of a flying goose, the tip vortices cause the air to have a net updraft. That's right. While the air directly behind a flying goose is moving downward, the air behind and on either side of a flying goose has a slight upward movement. Now, I'm the first to admit that neither geese nor ganders know didly about aerodynamics. But they all can feel the difference. If a goose is tired, and if the goose finds it easier to fly in a particular spot relative to the goose ahead of it, then the tired goose flies in that particular spot. That's all there is to it. But what about that local optimization?

Well, we've explained the local optimization issue, haven't we? Each goose in the graceful V-shaped formation is squarely in the mode of local optimization. Geese don't fly in such formations because they have a sense of esthetics. Geese have no sense of esthetics. They don't fly in such formations because they follow some policy. Geese don't have policies. They have only instincts, and one of these is the instinct for self- preservation. By flying behind and on either side of another goose, each flying goose is making life easier for itself and optimizing its likelihood of survival. We, who gape at them with such wonder and with mouths often open, see the behavior of the system of which the single solitary goose is a component. We see the result of wide-spread, successful, local optimization.

Now let's talk about that instinct for self-preservation. I can't prove it yet. But I have a strong suspicion that every complex organism (every animal) that has ever lacked the instinct for self-preservation has vanished from the face of the earth largely because it lacked that very instinct. If this is so, then I should expect every complex organism to behave in a somewhat predictable manner. For example, I should expect a goose to avoid things that are damaging to it, such as flying directly behind another goose. I should also expect a goose to do things that favor its survival, such as flying behind and to one side of another goose. Further, I should expect most geese and other complex organisms to be indifferent to things that are neither damaging to them nor favor their survival. As I said, I can't prove it yet. But I'm working on it, with the help of some very capable brains. Oh! Did I mention that people are complex organisms?

People are very complex organisms. They also have a strong instinct for self-preservation. And the behavior of the organizations that people form (we call these companies) is the result of wide-spread, successful, local optimization. When we observe a company that experiences smashing success, we see the behavior of a system within which successful, local optimization is rampant. When we observe a company that exhibits numbing mediocrity, again, we see the behavior of a system within which successful, local optimization is rampant. Whenever we observe any company, we can conclude with confidence that in that company there exists wide-spread, successful local optimization. So, what's the difference between companies that are smashingly successful and companies that are massively mediocre? There is a difference.

The difference is in the rules that exist within the companies. These rules (policies and measurements) are the physics of the system. Just as the laws of aerodynamics cause flocks of geese to fly in graceful V-shaped formations, the policies and measurements within a company cause the overall behavior of the organizational system that is the company. They do so by causing individuals to choose a specific set of actions that, within the context of the organization's internal physics, result in either the greatest gain or the least damage to individuals.

During our excursion into the realm of constraints and clear thinking, many of us might have drawn the conclusion that local optimization is a very bad thing, to be avoided at all costs (forgive me for the pun). But it is neither a bad thing nor a good thing. It is simply a fact of life. Every living thing today is constantly in the mode of local optimization. It has to be, simply to continue to survive in many cases. The tragedy isn't that local optimization exists. It is that we don't understand it nearly so well as a scientist understands the physics of the universe. If we did understand this organizational physics only half as well as a scientist understands, say, aerodynamics, then we might begin to harness the vast energy of the people that make up our organizations.

Perhaps, this is the most persuasive argument in favor of the Thinking Processes. They are tools for the discovery of the organizational physics that we desperately need to understand, if we are to design our organizational systems effectively.

(C) Tony Rizzo, 1996. This article may be reproduced only in its entirety. Any reproduction must include the author's name. This article may be published in formal publications, either in print or in electronic form, without written permission from the author.

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