The Biggest Barrier


Over the past couple of years we have been attempting to identify the most significant barriers that people face-that hold them back from being able to produce more or better results. Throughout the investigation we have encouraged them to think about their responses and not just provide the default reason of “not enough time.”

How would you answer that question? What are the one or two barriers that hinder you the most in your ability to achieve or exceed your goals? Go ahead and answer this in your mind. Then in a moment you can compare your answer with the responses of others.


Before providing some conclusions, I would like to pass on a rather unexpected occurrence, observed along the way. Many people respond to the question of their greatest barrier by describing the most challenging goal facing them. There are some likely reasons for this. One might be that they simply misinterpreted the question. Another might be that they are so goal directed, they do not think much in terms of barriers. I do wonder, however, if there are some that actually see no difference between the two (goal vs. barrier). “My biggest barrier in producing more is the fact that my goal is simply too big to begin with.” Perhaps in those cases, the biggest barrier might truly be the inability to have much say in any part of the goal setting process.

In spite of that, there are still a couple of interesting conclusions about the greatest barriers that people most frequently cite. First, the barriers have almost always originated from within their organizations vs. from the outside. Seldom, if ever, do we hear that the biggest barrier has anything to do with a competitor’s actions, a breakthrough technology, or the local economic picture. All of these must be dealt with, but they are not seen as the biggest obstacles. Instead, we most often hear answers like,

Communication across the company is terrible.

We are still stuck in silos, and there are too many competing agendas.

There is an endless stream of urgent requests from headquarters.

The people whose help I need are paid to be doing something different.

There does not seem to be anyone around to help me.

My boss is my biggest obstacle.

We have the knowledge and the capabilities to do the work, but I can’t seem to get enough support or cooperation to get things implemented.

Two other internal barriers that also come up are not having or being able to attract the right people, and not having the right kind of technological or systems capabilities. No doubt these items are vital issues for most organizations. But surprisingly, they were not as frequently cited as the answers to the barrier question, when compared to the others listed above.

The other, and most important conclusion from our exploration is this: the biggest contributing factor to most of the barriers cited is generally not out-dated technology, the wrong people or not enough budget, but rather, it is the lack of good relationships. Too often there is a huge rift in the level of cooperation, collaboration and support from others that is needed in order for people to fulfill their ambitious goals.

A Near Death Example

I was recently listening to a chief scientist at one of the country’s national laboratories talking about his work and the expectations of his organization. Much of what his organization does relates directly to our national security, and is extremely important work. His background is in physics, in which he holds several degrees. He is a very brilliant individual.

Early in the conversation, he began talking about what he called his near death experience. Given his background, I was very anxious to hear his story. A mishap from time travel was obviously a little too much to expect, but in the realm of quantum physics, a number of quite unusual near death experiences might occur.

I cannot explain the exact details of what his team was working on, but he related the fact that they were not making the kind of progress they needed to. So one day they got together, along with an outside consultant to figure things out. At one of the breaks, he was advised by one of his people that the consultant was not telling him what he needed to know. After reconvening the team, the scientist acknowledged the heads-up he had just received and then said to the group, “so tell me what I need to know.”

The first fifteen or so responses were relatively safe, softball responses. Then the next person responded with a statement that got his attention. The individual told him that “management was the problem.” The following person was even more bold and said to the scientist, “management is not the problem, you are the problem.” Needless to say, that really opened the door for some interesting dialogue.

Courageously, his people went on to explain to him that the work they were doing was his vision, his desires, his agenda not theirs. And at that moment, the scientist realized he had failed at one of the most important parts of his job as a leader. The relationships he needed to have with his team were deeply broken. He had not done the work necessary to build the necessary relationships for them to feel needed, included and valuable. That simple, yet profound eye-opening moment, that crystal clear lesson in leadership, was, in his eyes, a near death experience.

Now if you are wondering, the group did achieve highly successful results. In the scientist’s own words his people did things differently than he would have done them, or directed them to do, and they were substantially more successful because of it. Keep in mind, what his team works on is extremely important to all of us.

Reflect for a moment about the powerful message this man provided about the importance of building relationships. He and his team were gifted scientists and the challenges they faced required immense brainpower and scientific applications to solve. They had the knowledge in the group, and by the sounds of things at least enough budget to be successful. But even with all of that, the group had floundered. They were unable to come together to collectively figure out and create much needed solutions, because as their manager, this scientist was not engaging their brains and hearts in a way that was necessary to accomplish extraordinary results. In their minds, he was the obstacle. Fortunately, he was able to learn to let go of his very comfortable and preferred style of figuring out all the answers alone, and worked on building better relationships with his people. They responded by delivering some excellent results.

The Case for Better Relationships

Building effective relationships is crucial to leading more effectively. Leaders are people who somehow figure out how to get very difficult issues resolved, whether it is making the country more secure, turning around a company, or getting buy-in for and implementation of a profit producing idea within a department. Developing these kinds of solutions cannot be accomplished by a single individual working alone, no matter how Herculean the effort. They always require people working together toward a shared outcome. Adding to the difficulty, success almost always requires support and commitment from people outside one’s own area of direct influence.

Perhaps the most important case for better relationships is this: The goals that people face today cannot be accomplished by merely doing more of what they have always been doing. Success is not assured from working a couple of extra hours a day or simply throwing more bodies, qualified or not, at a problem. The fact of the matter is that the ambitious results demanded of people today can only be achieved by doing things differently. Success requires change. And a couple of things we know about change are these. It is always personal and is often very upsetting, especially when people feel it is forced upon them. Consequently, individuals may ultimately experience feelings ranging from a minor inconvenience to the deep loss of something important. Many times, that something which has been lost is trusted, reliable relationships that have worked. Solid relationships provide a great advantage to people as they struggle to work through the impact that change has on them.

We see people every day attempting to improve their organization’s effectiveness and profitability by proposing different ways of doing things. It may be a simple process improvement or the pilot of a new product or service. In both cases, it is still change. For successful implementation to occur, everyone who is affected by the change must understand its value and work toward achieving it.

Unfortunately, this unified alignment does not occur frequently enough. Change which is logical and obvious to some, feels irrational and threatening to others. When there are no underlying relationships between the different sides, trust is absent, and it becomes virtually impossible to have the kinds of meaningful conversations needed to achieve better understanding and ultimate alignment. People dig in their heels to protect their status quo.

Think about your own experiences. Have you ever seen a good idea to improve the business hit a brick wall and go nowhere? My guess is failure had less to do with technology or funding than it did with personal opposition. Whether it was from finance, IT, senior managers in your own function, senior managers in other departments, or people who would ultimately be most impacted by the change, there were too many parties either threatened by the change, or just not willing to devote the effort required to fully understand it and help make it succeed.

Dealing with this kind of opposition usually requires good relationships, because strangely enough, a well-formed business case by itself does not always influence and mobilize people the way you think it should.

Frequently we have heard people cite technology as a barrier holding them back from producing more. Diving deeper, we’ve uncovered that technology, per se, is not the issue. The problem is that these people cannot get any IT specialists to advise them, or they cannot get anyone to listen closely enough to their issue, so it can at least compete as one of the IT projects that will get funded. Those are issues of relationship, not technology.

From my experience, IT departments have almost always been seen as technically competent by others in the organization. But their ability to effectively work with people, especially those outside their own groups, is often another story. Everyone knows the IT people must work hard to constantly improve their technical knowledge and skills, because technology is one thing that does seem to change in the blink of an eye. Today, they must work just as hard at building better relationships, or their great technical capabilities will never be fully recognized, utilized or valued. When that happens, everyone usually loses. (By the way, the same can be said about any group or function offering specialized expertise and support.)

Going Forward

The good news is this. Because technology is such a strategic lever in most companies, we have seen an enormous effort, often led by IT departments, to build stronger partnerships with their “internal clients,” so they can serve them and the overall business better. They are now proactively responding to the relationship challenge, while still keeping their eyes centered on constantly growing their technical expertise.

Would your business be better if everyone, you included, were making this kind of relationship effort? Is it possible that others might be more open to your ideas of change, if they knew you better and trusted you more? Might they even be more willing to support your proposals if they believed you were looking out for their best interests and those of the entire company? These are just a couple of the elements that make up good relationships.

In closing, reflect for a moment about your own circumstances, and the barriers preventing you from producing more. How many of your hurdles are strictly budget or time related? How many would be greatly reduced, even eliminated, if you were more closely connected with people inside and outside of your own department? Are there not a couple of key relationships that you know you need to strengthen in order to make that happen?

Building strong, productive relationships is tough and often uncomfortable work. Whether you believe those relationships are, in fact, necessary and are willing to devote a committed effort to them is clearly up to you. Just keep in mind that more often than not, it is the lack of well-developed relationships, far more so than the lack of technology, money and even time that thwart people in their quest to achieve extraordinary results.

Copyright © 2005 International Leadership Associates.