Breaking down Barriers

Have you ever experienced the frustration of working across organisational silos where colleagues invest time and effort in protecting their space, their knowledge and their power to the detriment of the results produced? Well read on and see if my recent trip up Kilimanjaro can shed some light on the challenge.

As a small boy growing up in K\"Mount_Kilimanjaro\"enya we would drive to Mombasa and I would stare out of the window at ‘Kili’ looming out of the plains in far distant Tanzania.  I vowed at the time that one day I would climb it – and in September this year I did J  As I was stomping ‘pole pole’ (Swahili for slowly) up the path on the second morning of our adventure, trying hard to forget all about the world of work, I noticed for the first time what was happening around me with my fellow trekkers and guides.  Now you could not possibly get a more diverse group – 15 of us spanning an age range of 26 to 72, coming from all 4 corners of the UK and Hong Kong too! These 15 were supported by a further 35 or so porters and guides from various tribes and countries in East Africa.  It suddenly dawned on me that this trek was going to be hard for more than just reasons of altitude sickness and physical exertion.   I am a big believer in the fact that results and achievements rarely come for free; to deliver your ambitions comes with a series of challenges, whether this be climbing Kilimanjaro or delivering world class customer service.  For the group that I had joined there seemed to be challenges a plenty.

Firstly there was the sheer heat – equatorial East Africa is an unforgiving area of the world and we were really lucky, the sun was out, but the hot African sun made the going hard work.  Fortunately my big bush hat was doing a great job of protecting my head and neck, the little kiddy pot of factor 30 was having less success on my legs!  Secondly, for me at least, was the slow and steady pace; I am\"Me used to moving quickly and getting things done fast, I was genuinely struggling to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t just run up and get it over with – this was going to be eked out in slow and steady steps.  The third challenge was around disruption of normality; whilst you rationally accept that you are going to be ‘roughing it’ the reality day after day was tough to deal with emotionally and physically after a while.  Limited sleep in increasingly cold conditions, uncomfortable beds in river beds and on steep slopes; long drop toilets which require leg muscles of steel, an unfamiliar diet, unfamiliar languages, noises and smells and most of all the lack of any privacy or personal space.  Fortunately I am an extrovert, but for the introverts in the party this must have been even more of a challenge, being part of a group of 40 or so people rubbing shoulders with another 2 / 3 similar groups was tough. Sharing your daily lives intimately with 12 strangers was challenging, each person had their own personal issues and concerns, habits and expectations, preferences and priorities.  Lastly of course was the increasing physical challenge of walking for hours at a time up a steep mountain with slowly depleting oxygen levels.

Mulling over these thoughts as I stomped slowly up the mountain my work brain could not switch off from making the correlation back to some of the challenges my clients were facing.  Being part of this group was just like some of the more dysfunctional teams I have seen and worked with.

  • Poor or non-existent relationships outside the immediate operational work activity
  • Mixed, mis-managed and unrealistic expectations from team members
  • Managing and dealing with personal as well as organisational change at the same time
  • No clear leadership or leadership fostered on a team  through “expertise” (someone has done this before)
  • No control over how targets and aspirations were tackled – the team followed a plan with no buy-in or real understanding other than the immediate next steps

\"campsite\"The routine settled down – walk, stop, drink, walk – repeat for 3 / 4 hours! Arrive at camp site – try and find shade (mostly impossible other than in boiling hot tents), lunch, walk, stop drink, walk up for another hour then return to camp. Rest (impossible given noise and heat J) , sun starts to go down and start to feel cold, instant darkness and now feel freezing, supper, bed! Lie awake listening to the ‘keleli’ (noise) coming from porters and guides, start to worry (about the following day, how cold it was getting and whether you would need a wee in the night), fitful sleep, dawn, more keleli, up and try and fit kit back in bag, marvel at incredible sunrise, thank the lucky stars you are there and in the moment, realise how cold you are, breakfast……………. start all over again!!

Within that routine was a little miracle that enabled the challenges I described earlier to fade away and the adventure, opportunity and success of achievement to flourish.  Now that miracle wasn’t a miracle at all, clearly, but it made the difference.  The one thing you have with the routine I describe is time to talk – the pace was so slow that we found ourselves moving up and down the line sharing stories, information, knowledge and experiences, thereby simply getting to know our fellow expedition members properly.  We were having conversations that were building great relationships that enabled all sorts of ideas to be mooted, opportunities to be realised and results delivered.  The ultimate goal being the successful summit (for only 11 out of the party of 15) of Uhuru Peak, at 5895m the highest point in Africa and the tallest free standing mountain in the world! With these conversations natural leaders emerged, trust and respect and understanding burgeoned, support and encouragement blossomed.  The final assault on the peak was really tough, a 5 hour moonlit ascent up a very steep (and seemingly endless loose scree slope), -30 and a blizzard \"summitconditions on the crater rim and a dehydrated 90 minute stagger around the rim to the summit.  I know that the only thing that got me to the top was the fact that I wasn’t on my own, mentally or physically, the silos and barriers that were evident at the start of our journey had been removed and I was able to trust in the strength of the people around me.  When the energy and effort it takes to protect your ‘silo’ is re-focussed on the delivery of a common objective the results can be literally staggering!!  It was an incredible achievement that I will remain justifiably proud of – not least because so many of us got up there and what started out as a private ambition was transformed in to a team success.

As I stumbled down the final miles on the last day, tired and legs sore, again my work brain began to kick in and I was reflecting on the lessons I could take away from the experience that may be pertinent to my clients. If we are to overcome the challenges of working in cross-functional or geographically diverse teams we should realise we need:

  • To have a common and shared objective that was bigger and more stretching than anything we had done before
  • A perspective that this was a once in a lifetime experience so we had to give it our absolute best shot
  • To consider ourselves as a complete group, a single team rather than a collection of various individuals
  • Time to talk, have conversations and build relationships as this is the fuel that drives progress
  • To recognise when we are out of our comfort zones and need support and help. Ask and it is usually given.

Richard Ferguson
October 2013


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