Handling Human Hurdles

Handling Human Hurdles

“A hurdle can either be an obstacle or an opportunity” – Lolo Jones, 2012 Team USA Olympic Athlete

Hurdles can be seen as a metaphor for how we deal with our challenges at work. I am inspired by the example of hurdler Lolo Jones, who overcame immense physical obstacles, with admirable courage and determination, and returned from spinal surgery to be a contender for a London 2012 medal.

Consider this. Lolo’s personal best for the 100m hurdles, achieved at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is 12.43 seconds. Pretty impressive! Now compare Lolo’s performance with Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint record – 9.58 seconds, achieved in Berlin in 2009 and so far unmatched by anyone, ever. That is nearly 25% faster. And a good part of that difference lies in the hurdles themselves, the barriers that we put in the way and that slow things down. The best ‘flat track’ runners will always be faster than the best hurdlers over the same distance.

This same ‘drain on speed’ happens in the workplace, where barriers get in the way of working effectively and efficiently. And there’s a cost to being slow, as once-great organisations like Kodak have discovered all too painfully. Some of the barriers, like a lack of strategy or poor execution, are obvious. But there is a whole class of barriers that are rarely recognised even though they are often the biggest drain on speed.

My colleagues and I call this class of barriers the human hurdles to performance at speed. The human hurdles all deal with how people interact (or don’t interact) to get work done: how decisions are made, whether and how information is shared, how arguments are resolved, how one person’s behaviour affects others around them. Here are the five most common human hurdles that we see in our work:

Do you recognise some of these? They often manifest themselves in the grind of unproductive meetings, snail’s-pace projects, problems that don’t stay fixed, turf wars that erupt between groups or departments, bickering and posturing between teams, or continued conflict that saps an organisation’s strength. These are things that happen even in smart corporations with sound strategies and the brightest and the best employees.

Where are the human hurdles in your organisation? Start looking for the pressure points, tell-tale signs that interaction is less than optimal. Sit in on some meetings – how productive are they? Think about how many times you’ve had to resolve the same issues again and again. Listen to the chat at the water-cooler — what are the stories people are telling within your organisation, stories that reflect on its norms of behaviour? And, if you can bring yourself to, take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself what you, personally, might be doing to contribute to the situation and what changes you could make to the way things are being done around here.

Once you become aware of the human hurdles, you will start seeing them everywhere. And once you become aware of how much they are making work in your organization slow and unproductive, you’ll understand why it’s important to address them.

We have many examples of organisations that have recognised a need to start shifting the human hurdles round, turning these barriers into bridges that improve communication and collaboration between the people in their organisations.

One place you can make a start is with Team Discovery, a half-day session that gets the team talking about its own hurdles and working out its best plan of attack. While Team Discovery won’t turn you into Lolo Jones or Usain Bolt overnight, it may well be the first step in a process to accelerate the team’s interactions, moving it towards your own version of gold-medal performance.

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   About the Author

Max is the CEO of Belbin North America. He brings a depth of knowledge and experience from his career in general management and consulting in North America, England, Europe and Asia. Max has assisted CEOs and senior leaders within client organizations with the design and implementation of Interaction Planning processes, team based organizational development programs and Lean Six Sigma initiatives.