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Overcoming Barriers to Success
Business Journal

Overcoming Barriers to Success

What creates them? And how can your organization knock them down?

by Tom Rieger

It's the end of the year. A manager commissions a project that is completely unnecessary just so he doesn't lose any of his budget next year -- even though another department desperately needs those funds.

Barrier removal causes some short-term pain, but it makes organizations run faster and better.

A consumer products company is behind schedule with its next production batch. The production manager will be penalized if she can't get the product released to market on time. But the quality assurance manager won't release the test results until the production memo, although fine as it was originally written, is put in a style that is closer to her way of writing -- causing a two-day delay.

A customer demands to know when he will receive his product. The sales representative is told that although the shipping information is in the system, she is not authorized to release that information. As a result, the customer cancels the order and takes his business elsewhere -- permanently.

These true stories are examples of problems that occur each day in far too many organizations, creating hidden costs and draining profitability in ways most companies don't even recognize. That's because these threats to efficiency, responsiveness, and growth aren't from external sources -- they are problems companies create for themselves. They are barriers: internally built, locally maintained, and profoundly harmful.

Often, policies and practices that become barriers are created with the best of intentions: to protect a particular individual's or group's ability to meet a goal or objective. The policy or practice makes sense at the time to the person who puts it in place. However, when meeting local needs conflicts with the needs of the organization -- or when checking off a box becomes more important than achieving strategic goals -- barriers are born.

Barrier building

In studying this phenomenon across multiple industries, job types, countries, and organizational levels and functions, Gallup found that barriers result from five causes: fear, information flow, short-term thinking, misalignment, and money.

  • Fear, especially fear of loss, can lead managers to fiercely protect their ability to meet their goals or to impose overly stringent control on people they manage. Fear can create silos, cumbersome bureaucratic practices, and walls between groups, and it can cause a local process to trump overall success.
  • There are two types of information flow barriers: transmission and assimilation. Transmission barriers arise when information that one group needs is blocked by another group or is simply inaccessible. Assimilation barriers result from the opposite problem: too much information and not enough time or resources to process it, handle conflicts, or understand different interpretations.
  • Short-term thinking barriers are either "sins of omission" or "sins of commission." A sin of omission occurs when a decision is made without consulting those who must live with the consequences or when a decision is made in haste. One example is not allowing anyone to use overnight shipping because one person overused it. Sins of commission, on the other hand, occur when longer term concerns are known but ignored or rationalized away. A hiring freeze can be a sin of commission if you know there is a long learning curve, but you are not going to hire anyone until you already need them to be fully productive.
  • Barriers due to misalignment come in three types. Alignment to mission barriers exist when there is no clear link between why a person joined an organization and what he actually does; they also flourish when there is a general lack of inspiration or strategy. Misalignment barriers can also build between a manager and her staff members if the manager's evaluation protocol is subjective and doesn't relate to her employees' performance results. The most common misalignment barriers occur when different departments' goals are in direct opposition. For example, an inventory control group might want as little product in the warehouse as possible while a sales group wants enough to cover potential large sales.
  • Money barriers can be personal or departmental. Personal money barriers result from manipulation of a bonus system, for example, or self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. Departmental money barriers generally stem from protecting budget, headcount, or decision rights even when the organization desperately needs to make changes.

Barrier busting

An organization can start eradicating its barriers and improving its performance by conducting an objective analysis of the root cause, manifestation, and impact of barriers, then prioritizing them based on their influence and how difficult they will be to remove. Though barriers can seem insurmountable, it's important to remember that because they were created internally, they can be knocked down internally. The need that led to the barrier may have been legitimate, but there might be a better way to meet the need without creating collateral damage.

So how do you successfully remove barriers in your organization? Barrier-busting activities include conducting an audit of rules and practices to find those that are blocking success rather than protecting the organization, or restructuring performance management systems to better align outcomes with goals. Removing barriers could require finding a better balance between empowerment and accountability or setting more interdepartmental goals and joint accountabilities.

Solutions for barrier removal vary greatly from organization to organization depending on the specific barriers. If barrier removal is done properly though, the benefits to the organization can be dramatic. Here are some examples of significant successes that resulted from barrier removal:

  • A customer service center changed its national ranking from worst to first.
  • In a retail bank, divisions that tore down barriers saw improvements in key metrics that far exceeded gains that other parts of the network experienced.
  • A hospital chain had sharp increases in employee engagement compared to facilities that did not participate in barrier removal work.
  • A financial services firm realized a 10% reduction in turnover.
  • A nutritional company achieved a boost in sales conversions of nearly 10%.

Removing barriers takes courage. It takes a strong commitment from the top, but it also requires commitment and participation from employees across all levels of the organization. Barrier removal may cause some short-term pain. But in time, it makes organizations run faster and better, putting them ahead of the competition. The effort and cost of barrier busting can be regained many times over when the walls are finally torn down. And that's not just a signal of success, that's a genuine triumph.


Tom Rieger is the author of Breaking the Fear Barrier.

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