Have you ever had the experience of thinking something and then suddenly it’s in every conversation and everywhere you look? I’ve been having that experience lately. So, what is it? Actually, it’s the effort to name a state of change and the very real experience of living “in-between.”
Certainly, there are many people who live their whole life “in the hyphen” of their experience – meaning they are actively living in two or more cultures, two or more personas, or two or more roles. And I believe right now, and throughout the pandemic, we have all been living in this space.
This in-between time has many names and many ways to navigate. Some years ago I was introduced to the word “liminality” by a friend and mentor Richard Evans. Liminality has a variety of definitions but in its simplest form it is the experience of being on a threshold – the experience as Victor Turner coined “of being betwixt and between.” Richard showed me and so many others the gift of this space even with all the anxiety and uncertainty that came in its path. He taught me to see the opportunity, to lean into this space, to question assumptions, to break out of what was holding back a mission or a person or myself. He taught us to find the heat of the uncomfortable and to experiment with radical intent as the fuel to power the next possibility.
As life lessons go sometimes, the word and the concepts of liminality slipped into my thinking as a norm. I walked into the pandemic subconsciously and then very consciously inviting as many as I could to use this time to question our assumptions and to look forward, not backward. After all, it was never ideal “back there.” I came back over and again to the idea of VUCA and what it means to lead in this new space – a space of liminality. I’ve written about VUCA many times in the past in articles such as Taking the Time to Pause, Reflect, and Plan in an Ever-changing Landscape. We even planned our 2019 Leadership Summit around the concept.
The interesting thing about all this is that I can see many efforts right now to name this space. I am glad, because the very gift of naming it might actually let us be in it for all that it has to offer instead of pretending it’s not a place and working against it in the name of going back to the way things used to be – or attempting to rush through it as the level of discomfort and unease (if not all-out panic) is a real part of this place – or only seeing what it isn’t, rather than the balance of what it offers. More than that, I feel that the upheaval of this time—right now – while it is breaking things, even those things we hold so dear, it is also creating great and uncharted opportunity, which is good. If we are willing to sit in the space of liminality we can harness its gifts to move ahead.
There are many pictures of this space. In leadership transition we often turn to William Bridges’ picture of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, which talks about liminality or crossing the threshold in three phases – grieving/letting go – adjustment/neutral zone – rejuvenation/new beginnings.
In innovation work, we think of it also as multiple phases in which we must know our core, then question our assumptions, then form a hypothesis about the future where we repeatedly test those ideas through experimentation until we are ready to develop a prototype of the idea and eventually take it to scale in the name of creating more public value. In our strategic planning, we again position ourselves to know our core and then envision our future without getting mired in the journey’s details that we can never know or if named would vanquish the new achievements we seek.
Recently, however, I have learned about liminality from the illustration below that depicts Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. In order to “cross the threshold” of liminality we need to suspend our judgement and see with fresh eyes. It is a time to grieve so that we can let go and let come what is next. Once a person or a group is able to connect to a source of inspiration at the bottom of the U, they are able to find a new way forward through action and experimentation. It’s tempting to try to jump over the canyon, but, regardless of the discomfort, this phase cannot be skipped because this is the time when we come to understand the world differently. We come to understand ourselves differently. We learn and grow and make mistakes that teach us important lessons if we are open to learning them. Like a butterfly spreading its wings and taking off, maybe remembering that once it was rolled into a cocoon contemplating its existence or not, the past seems distant yet important. What others might never have known is what you went through to get here. You, too, might forget that in this life we will repeat this cycle many times. Liminality is part of a natural cycle.
Many of us are struggling right now. We’re a bit desperate to know the next right move while also knowing that our need to know is actually getting in the way of how important it is to be on the journey in the first place. I know I feel my own pressure to lead my team effortlessly into our next thriving space – and I also know our journey cannot be rushed. It just is.
The other day I was shown a picture of an airport TSA station sign that said: “recombobulation area.” I laughed because there it was again – the naming of the in-between space – this time of travel – a kind of liminality in a microcosm. Literally, this sign noted the place where we are supposed to re-sort ourselves so we could continue on our journey. I wondered, too, if this is what we all need right now – a place to recombobulate.
Maybe collectively this pandemic has been so much about grieving what we knew, what we thought was true, what we wanted to be true forever, what we hoped would never be true, that in order to move to the next place where we are curious and courageous, where we have more questions and less judgment, where we are more comfortable in discomfort or at least where we know our discomfort is moving us toward something even better – maybe liminality is the chance to soar to what’s next.