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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.

How to Dominate the Scary Space of Creativity in the Digital Era

May 22, 2016

We love our online lives. We know all too well how good It feels to click on our familiar apps and websites and hang out with those who like what we like and think what we think.

But there’s a danger lurking in comfortable conformity.

If all we see and hear are those who think and believe just like us, we can leave little room for new ideas and different perspectives.

These are the spaces where creativity stagnates and intolerance grows.

So, is this where our digital journey has led us? And, if so, is this where we truly want to be?

If not–if we are sure we want something better–how do we break free of this comfortable conformity and lean into the scary spaces of creativity and innovation?

Here’s a short video I recently did that tries to answer some of that:



Agree? Disagree? Let’s chat about it. Leave me a comment!


Success, Mindfulness, and the Concealed Costs of Hustle

May 8, 2016

Businessman running

NOTE: On Monday, May 9, 2016 we had an outstanding discussion on Blab to go far more in depth with this same topic.
Here’s the recording of that discussion.
Be sure to check it out!

Success will never be the same again. As technology and social media transform business, entrepreneurs and other business leaders have no choice. They must find new ways of capturing attention, extending their influence and staying ahead of the pack.

At times like this, times of high transition, it’s common to look for new voices and new ways of thinking to help us navigate the uncertain road ahead. For regular viewers of YouTube and other social media platforms, Gary Vaynerchuk is currently one of the most influential of these voices. Despite an irreverent style and rapid-fire, potty-mouth banter, Gary Vee preaches a refreshingly holistic form of social-era evangelism. His message is one based on a razor-sharp understanding of consumer behavior, empathic concern for others and unflinching self-awareness.


The Misreading of Hustle

Yet, even with several best-sellers and near-24/7 media presence, one Vaynerchuk’s key ideas seems to be continually misinterpreted. And not only that: this misinterpretation has taken on almost cult-like status. I’m referring to the idea of “Hustle”.

In his latest book, #AskGaryVee: One Entrepreneur’s Take on Leadership, Social Media, and Self-Awareness, Vaynerchuk devotes a whole chapter to the topic of hustle. This is for good reason. As he points out in the introduction, Vaynerchuk frequently finds that many take a superficial approach to this concept, sadly missing his deeper meaning.

Hustle is a passionate commitment working hard to manifest one’s own personal vision of success. But the key to hustle—and this is the part that many so often miss—is that it only has value when integrated with the entire #GaryVee approach. This is a commitment to success based on gratitude, self-awareness, empathy, and putting others’ well-being first.


The Cult of Hustle

A quick search of either Twitter or Instagram for the hashtag #hustle quickly shows that Vaynerchuk’s deeper commitments are all but lost. Instead we see scores of messages reflecting what I call the “Cult of Hustle.”

But the problem here is more than just misrepresentation. It’s misguidance. Instead of championing collaborative empowerment, the Cult of Hustle preaches an outdated message of self-celebrating narcissism.

I know this sounds harsh, but there is good reason. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, researcher Kristin Neff describes our culture’s fixation with self-celebration as the “cure-all in the quest for inflated egos.” But the problem is bigger than just a misguided understanding of self-esteem. When set loose in business, the Cult of Hustle serves up a profound misreading of contemporary business dynamics and the nature of success.

Outdated Heroicism

A close look at the popular notion of hustle reveals an underlying assumption that success is an heroic achievement. In this form of achievement, success comes from working harder, being smarter, and being more shrewd than anyone else. So, to feel worthy and attain the success I envision, many others must end up being “less-than me”.

Within business, this heroic approach to success is the same that helped leaders triumph in the long-gone industrial era. But the heroic leaders of yesterday aren’t going to solve problems in today’s volatile, socially-driven business environment. In today’s complex world, the Cult of Hustle just ain’t gonna cut it.

21st Century Business: A Need for Community

To get a better idea of what will cut it, we should look a bit more closely at the kind of challenges business now faces. Writing in Huffington Post, Ayelet Baron described the unique characteristics of 21st century business and what it now takes to be successful.

The 21st century is about community and open, two-way conversations. We no longer need to yell at people and broadcast to get their attention. People want to engage in conversation and be listened to.  The new breed of leaders respect people and allow for communities to form where they no longer need to be at the head.

This is not just feel-good rhetoric. It’s a prescription for the kind of volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous problems today’s entrepreneurs face every day. Problems like these simply will not yield to the old, heroic model of authority and expertise. New thinking—like that offered by Gary Vaynerchuk—is now needed to meet these new challenges.

So if the Cult of Hustle is better suited to a by-gone era of success, what is the alternative? For that, we should talk briefly about mindfulness.



The New Era of Mindful Business

The idea of mindfulness comes from the ancient traditions of Eastern contemplative practices. Mindfulness is a way of seeing the world based on Acceptance, Non-Judgment, Letting Go, Non-Striving, Patience, and Self-Compassion. For centuries mindfulness was more a practice for monks and yogis, but in recent years the concept has gone mainstream–this includes business as well. Forbes, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey, and The World Economic Forum have all recognized mindfulness as an important pathway for cultivating the kind of focus, self-reflection, and emotional intelligence now needed for success.

In the Cult of Hustle, success demands unwavering attention to one’s own skills, needs and self-determined goals. But in business today, success requires something different.

So rather than focusing on personal achievement, the focus turns to quieting the inner chatter and emotional reactions that regulary block our ability to notice the weak signals that often preceed opportunities before they emerge.

But this becomes much harder to do when we are laser-focused on hustling.

Can Social Business Reverse Our Growing Crisis of Innovation?

March 21, 2015

barnraising men

Recently I was talking with a friend who works for a Fortune 500 company. When I asked about social media and collaboration, there was a slight chuckle. “Even if we had time to collaborate” my friend said, “the bosses have no interest in new ideas. All they care about is this insane push for us to hit our numbers.”

I must admit I was not completely shocked. Even with the enthusiastic press and daily chat feeds calling this the ‘new era of social collaboration‘, I knew that a majority of workers remained more like my friend than not. And given the recent data it makes a lot of sense.


America’s Crisis of Innovation

As Steve Denning recently reported, America remains mired in a generations-long innovation crisis. Despite the nation’s rebounding economy and renewed optimism, most American firms simply can’t compete in the global marketplace.

While we might be quick to point the finger at broader economic and political factors, two recent polls suggest that the causes may be much closer to home. In fact, they may be within the workplace itself.


An Epidemic of Disengagement

Data now suggests that a large majority of American workers spend their days in environments that discourage collaboration and creative thinking. While this is especially the case with millennials, a majority of workers of all ages feel discouraged from thinking outside the box and contributing new ideas.

Reporting on a study recently published by the firm MindMatters, Denning notes that

Only 5% of respondents report that workers in innovation programs feel highly motivated to innovate. [And] while more than half the respondents (55%) say that their organizations treat intellectual property as a valuable resource, only one in seven (16%) believed their employers regarded its development as a mission-critical function. (in Forbes)

Add to this a recent Gallup poll finding that more than two-thirds of American workers feel disengaged from their jobs. Here again, we see millennials hit especially hard.

According to Gallup,  over 71% of millennials currently feel disengaged from their work. Gallup reported that

This finding suggests that millennials may not be working in jobs that allow them to use their talents and strengths, thus creating disengagement.


The Gap Between Aspirations vs. Execution

For businesses, these numbers reveal a significant disconnect between organizations’ professed ambitions and their daily execution. While business and political leaders might say they long for the kind of fresh thinking needed to reestablish dominance of global markets, those on the front lines hear quite a different message.

Indeed, many managers seem to be taking page right out of Frederick Taylor’s playbook for Scientific Management by, essentially telling their workers You’re not here to think. You’re here to do!

This leaves us with a question: If social business is ushering us into the next wave in innovation, how can a social mindset help to reverse this epidemic of disengagement?

Pushing Social Even Further

There is little doubt that social technology is a key player in the  future of work.  The current dialogue focusing on social tools and strategies for workplace engagement is an important one. It’s a wellspring of transformation for what business currently is and will become.

Yet if American business is serious about reviving innovation, the conversation needs to go even further. As future-leaning thinkers, we will have to expand our current dialogue and consider an even bolder vision for the potential of a social mindset.

For instance, can we push the idea of “social” further to envision management practices more open to uncertainty and the risk-laden terrain of creative thinking? If so, we may open a doorway to collaborative cultures more welcoming to risk, uncertainty and new thinking.


The Risk of Looking Deeper

But there is an important caveat: any meaningful conversation about opportunities must also consider the forces impeding them. In some cases this means coming face to face with issues perhaps considered too delicate to discuss. For example, for managers this will likely mean examining the deeper reasons why they treat innovation and change more like threats than as opportunities.

I’ll explore some of these deeper reasons myself in the next piece. But for now I hope to hear some of your thoughts on pushing the social mindset, expanding creative thinking, and exploring the barriers to innovation.


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