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Baffled By All This Disruption? It’s Time You Learned About Liminality.

May 16, 2017


For those working in organizations and industries beset by continuous disruption and upheaval, it is difficult at times not to feel repeatedly victimized or violated by disruptions and upheavals that seem to be beyond one’s control. Constant exposure to work environments that are unstable or even chaotic can quickly undermine productivity and lead to excessive anxiety, low morale, scapegoating, and rapid burnout.

Such conditions can be especially difficult for those in positions of authority who, despite such recurrences, remain responsible for maintaining order and/or delivering according to set standards or timetables.

Under such conditions there are no quick fixes or easy answers. However, there is reason to believe that recurring patterns of instability and upheaval may actually be symptoms of broader deep systemic imbalances that, in turn, indicate a culture in the throes of deep transformative processes.

Granted, every upheaval or breakdown does not mean a system is in transition — after all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. However, in an increasing number of cases, awareness of a condition known as liminality may provide some, particularly leaders, with much-needed insight and context that can, in turn, help organizations feel more empowered, less reactive, and better able to sense what may lie ahead.

A Modern Phenomenon, With Roots In Ancient Rituals

While the experience of liminality has been occurring for thousands of years, the term itself — which means a “quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals” — was just coined in the early 20th century by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep.

Van Gennep often referred to liminality as an uncomfortable state of “betwixt and between.” During such a state a person’s sense of self, temporarily ripped away from a comfortable, familiar routines and identity, becomes deeply disoriented and in turmoil as it undergoes a life-changing passage into a more mature or sophisticated identity. Van Gennep used an example drawn from indigenous cultures and the harrowing rituals adolescent boys went through as they made the passage into manhood.

A Passage For Societies and Culture As Well

In the mid-20th century philosopher Karl Jaspers noted that liminal passages were not just something individuals experienced; liminality was something an entire civilizations could experience. In such cases, entire populations were thrown into turmoil as customs, values, and institutions that were well-suited to one cultural stage of development began to collapse as a new, not-yet-fully-formed cultural era began to emerge.

At such points, familiar customs and traditions begin to lose influence as long-standing social hierarchies started to lose their authority amongst those who now seemed to hold values that did not fit within the same old established structures. Eventually, new traditions and social structures emerged to better reflect the new order of things. But until that occurred, things would become quite rocky road for all concerned.

Also An Organizational Phenomenon

In recent years, several authors —including me and, most notably, Dave Gray — have begun to recognize liminality as process of growth and maturation that impacts organizations as well. And, if we think about, this notion of organizational liminality makes a lot of sense.

History tells us that, from time to time, the Earth’s population has gone through a number of large-scale paradigm shifts that have dramatically altered social structures, intellectual traditions, and the institutions that embody them. With the changes our planet is now experiencing, it seems reasonable to assume that today we are in midst of another liminal passage of planetary proportions.

Assuming that is indeed the case, it then makes sense that organizations designed to accommodate a particular order, would start to experience instability and breakdowns as society starts to experience the emergence of a new, more sophisticated order.

But What’s A Leader To Do?

That question has no easy answers. However, it does seem reasonable to assume that, if the values and social structures surrounding an organization are experiencing a process of evolution, organizations that begin to align with that evolution have a much better chance of surviving and thriving than those that insist on holding onto the old order.

For those in positions of leadership, the most important part of fostering this alignment is to begin learning how to listen in new way. Every day now new signals and patterns are emerging hold potential as valuable indicators of the new alignment we will be seeing in broader structures and institutions. In addition, new management mindsets, such the Anchors and Sails model I am now beginning to develop, offer one way of becoming more receptive to emerging patterns while still delivering on critical strategic outcomes.

But our awareness of what is unfolding is still in its infancy. In fact, there a lot emerging at this very moment will disrupt “business as usual” even further. The best thing any of us can do is to simply stay tuned.


In a Turbulent World, Successful Organizations are Masters of Weaving

May 13, 2017


In the 1988 movie “Working Girl” with Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford, there is a pivotal scene in which the distressed working girl, Griffith, proves to a corporate mogul that she, a “mere” secretary, was the real mastermind behind a lucrative merger deal. Griffith’s character proves herself by talking the mogul through the mental twists and turns — involving shock jocks, the New York Post, charity balls, and visions for corporate expansion — she traversed to forge a vision of an inspired business venture.

The scene is brilliant, but not just because it deftly saves the day for Griffith so she can finally get the corner office as well as Harrison Ford; it’s brilliant because it illustrates how the ability to interweave seemingly unrelated concepts, influences, and interests is — now more than ever — one of the most important capacities organizations can now possess.

New Thinking About Thinking For Turbulent Times

In an era defined by extreme levels of complexity and upheaval, traditional brainstorming processes and problem-solving strategies are often proving themselves to be little more than distractions. These methods — holdovers from the industrial era — rely upon linear thought processes and proven formulas. This rational underpinning makes them fairly unreliable in a world where butterfly effects and black swan events can unexpectedly shift or decimate the best-laid plans or practices.

For this reason, businesses that wish to not only survive, but thrive through during these turbulent times will need not only new thinking, but new ways of thinking about thinking in order to do things like magnify weak signals and leverage the power of group intuition.

A (Not So) New Idea

And while the challenges most businesses now face seem unprecedented, the notion of interweaving disparate thoughts or influences as a key strategic asset was first introduced nearly a century ago.

Business professors will tell you that contemporary management practices as we now think of them originated in 1911 when an engineer and efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced an evidence-based model of organizational operations he called scientific management. Taylor’s model was steeped in data gathering and logical thought processes. As a result, such esoteric pursuits as trusting one’s intuition or mixing together things that did not appear to belong together was quite taboo.

But a contemporary of Taylor’s, social reformer and management consultant Mary Parker Follett, saw things quite differently. For Follett, the mechanistic world view that Taylor so idolized, while useful at times, was far from the be all and end all. As Follett saw it, the world not a giant mechanistic construction; for her, every thing and thought in the universe exists as part of a complex and ever-evolving experience of interweaving forces.

For this reason, Follett frequently declared that interweaving was the basis of all creative processes. Furthermore, she also believed that, for managers, the ability to perceive and facilitate interweaving was one of the most important things they could do. As Follett saw it “the ceaseless interweavings of new specific [situations], is the whole forward movement of existence” (1924, p. 134).

Interweaving and Anchors

However, as encouraging as Follett may make it sound — or as enticing Melanie Griffith may make it look — for both managers and workers navigating in contemporary organizations and their near-constant turbulence, the process of interweaving is rarely simple or without substantial risks.

Today, both managers and workers are typically overwhelmed with unknowns and anxieties. For this reason, those striving to weave solutions in environments dominated by turbulence and ambiguity need to have reliable anchors in order to serve as a constant source of coherence and stability.

I recently proposed a model to help organizations navigate turbulent environments in a manner that fosters innovation and personal growth. Since introducing the Anchors and Sails model (not even 24 hours ago) I have had several exchanges that have prompted me to recognize even broader implications than what I had originally envisioned.

Several of these that I’ve not yet discussed, dive deeper into the relationship between anchors and interweaving. I plan to discuss these implications in more depth in the next several days.

Creating Coherence and Unleashing Vision in Business: The Application of Anchors and Sails

May 12, 2017


Note: Much gratitude to the wonderfully fun and brilliant Martha Valenta [@MarthaValenta] for her assistance in bringing these ideas into more tangible form.

Most models of management practice and business operations are based on an underlying presumption that the world is an orderly place where careful planning and logical execution consistently result in the attainment of intended outcomes. Ironically, most of these models appear to be unfazed by the fact that this rarely happens.

To thrive in our current age of deep turbulence, organizations will need frameworks for action that not only acknowledge the disruptive and non-linear nature of organizational life, but also use disruption and nonlinearity as opportunities for expanding capacities and consciousness.

In the coming years, this emphasis on growth and development — particularly through self-education — will be the critical determinant for an organization’s success or demise. The reason is simple: to survive in the face of rapidly accelerating disruption and unprecedented levels of complexity, rather than seeing upheaval as a catastrophic collapse, organizations will instead need to develop an ability to rapidly create coherence and unleash vision.

Anchors and Sails: A Model For Navigating Turbulent Organizational Waters

Throughout the next several postings I will introduce a preliminary draft of a model for effective leadership of teams working in environments where disruption and upheaval are seen as the rule rather than the exception.

This model is tentatively called “Anchors and Sails” because it posits that organizational effectiveness in turbulent environments demands that teams have simple tools for making sense of chaotic conditions (Anchors) and moving ahead toward meaningful outcomes when the future is full of uncertainty (Sails).

The Anchors and Sails model. Relational processes support teams to collaboratively make sense of past and present turbulence (Anchors), while conversational processes support teams in moving toward meaningful outcomes amidst high levels of uncertainty (Sails).

Anchors And Sails: Relational processes support teams to collaboratively make sense of past and present turbulence (Anchors), while conversational processes support teams in moving toward meaningful outcomes amidst high levels of uncertainty  (Sails).

Success is Relational, Not Formulaic

The underlying logic of the Anchors and Sails model is that success in highly-disruptive environments is dependent upon relationships, rather than fixed formulas. Specifically, to consistently produce effective outcomes in such environments, rather than strict adherence to prescribed “success formulas”, leadership must instead commit to fostering psychologically-safe cultures based on high levels of trust and frequent collaboration.

The Four Anchors

Psychological Safety: The cornerstone of the entire model. A pervasive sense by all stakeholders that they can be vulnerable, admit mistakes and share incomplete or inaccurate impressions without fear of judgment or reprisal.

Mindfulness: A willingness to be fully open to experiencing and learning from events and conditions without a need for quick judgment or defensiveness.

Interdependence: A cultural attribute that continually affirms that all team members, regardless of position, need one another to succeed. All are equally important and valued in creating valued outcomes.

Shared Experience: A common background or history in which previous trials and shared struggles serve to forge bonds of trust and reciprocity.

The key benefit to Anchors is that a team’s internal bonding and shared experience helps create a safe environment where novel approaches to current challenges is encouraged.

The Four Sails

Process: An awareness of all events — both expected and unexpected — as vital components of deeply interconnected patterns of behavior. There is understanding that these patterns are where growth and novelty are constantly emerging.

Foresight: An ability to draw from previous experience and knowledge of underlying patterns to discern possible futures.

Integration: Continually striving to maintain a holistic perspective by interweaving multiple, often-diverse, influences, agendas, and value systems.

Humility: A demonstrated sense of gratitude and service based on the premise that external events and influences — even those considered “disruptove” — can act as catalysts for individual and organizational evolution.

A Work In Progress

This current iteration of the Anchor and Sails model can be loosely thought of as version 1.2 or 1.3. A great deal of refinement and integration lies a head. In that spirit, I look forward to the feedback and reflections of those who can relate to and benefit from the model’s unique perspective.

During the next week, I will come back to this model to dig a bit deeper and forge more useful insights into its application and benefits.

Why The World of Business Is Still Scared of Your Inner Life

May 11, 2017


Until business addresses its long-standing inability to acknowledge humans as psychological beings with complex, emotionally-driven inner lives, it will remain unable to harness the deeper capacities and commitments of its people. As a result, most organizations will continue to operate under a pervasive cloud-cover of anxiety that keeps solutions to many of our society’s most vexing issues out of reach.

While many believe that lack of human connection is the product of money-hungry executives or poor management training, the real reason goes much deeper. The actual culprit are the deep intellectual divisions that characterize the Enlightenment-era thinking that still underlies most business thinking.

A Lineage of Separate Domains

Back in the day, the primary benefit of Enlightenment-era ideals was that they sought to free Western thinking from the centuries-old belief in magic, superstition, and individual prejudice. Ideas by thinkers like Descartes, Newton, and Rousseau helped do this by introducing new systems of thought based on principles of logic and rationality.

As a result, Western thought — and the scientific thinking that underscored it — worked long and hard to create a clear intellectual divide between the physical world and anything associated with the subjective part of human experience. According to British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow, what then ensued was a large-scale separation of the human experience, including its intellectual progress, into separate domains of human existence now known as the Sciences and the Arts.

As things worked out, anything related to material laws or mathematical processes — including the study of economics from which business thinking emerged — fell under the domain of science. Conversely, anything related to emotions or human beings’ subjective experience — such as creativity, philosophy, and psychology — were all assigned to the domain of the Arts.

Business was a Science; However Thinking About Business (or anything else, for that matter) Was an Art.

Another key premise of Enlightenment-era thinking was that every “thing” and experience that existed, belonged to one — and only one — category of human experience. Enlightenment thinkers were clear that these domains could never be mixed. (“Once you’re a Jet, You’re a Jet all the way, From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.”)

Sorry, it’s really late.

So if something is considered a “science” everything within that thing or experience must also be an aspect of “science.”

This logic makes it much easier to understand how — for the past several hundreds years, if not more — business could treat human beings as little more than animated tools that needed to be fed and given rest in order to perform their assigned duties. This belief, now just a tad abhorrent, made total sense in its day as it served to maintain the separation of domains that had long defined Western thought.

And, Fast Forwarding To Today…

Today most organizational thinkers, including many university professors who write new theories and are charged with pushing the boundaries of how the world of business thinks about itself, remain unconsciously bound by the same rational separation of domains that has existed since the time of the Enlightenment.

The problem, however, is that today’s most pressing challenges — in both business and the world at large — require more nuanced, cross-disciplinary problem-solving strategies than that used at previous point in human history. For example, contemporary business challenges often call for greater use of capacities such as intuition, empathy, and collaborative sensemaking.

But, despite the growing intensity of such problems, until organizations can begin to employ not just new ideas, but a whole new paradigm of thinking, the solutions we so need will remaining confoundingly out of reach.

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