This article has been a long time in gestation. I’ve been wanting to write it for a good long while. Several months, actually. It just wasn’t ready to come out. It was in its own in-between space.
The idea of in-between spaces isn’t new. It’s as old as time, actually. And it is something that is about time. And process. And evolution. And changing.
In particular, it’s about the process that happens as we transition from one form or state of being to another. In other words, it’s not about being. It’s about becoming.
That might sound a bit abstract. Possibly a tad profound. Others might just think it’s highfalutin nonsense brought on by stress, overwork or too much alcohol. For all of that, I’ll try to make this practical and relevant.
There is actually a word for being in-between. It’s called “liminality.” The word comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold. And that’s what the idea is about: being on the threshold of moving from one state or place to another. When you are in a liminal space, you’re no longer where you started; you’re also not yet where you will wind up. You are in transition, in progress and in transformation.
Given the amount of change going on in the world (and the amount of change going on in our organizations) it’s an extremely useful idea. Particularly because if we can recognize what’s causing the tension and stress of being neither here nor there, we can actually start to manage it. And giving it a label is an important first step.
The idea of liminality originated in anthropology, exploring (quite literally) rites of passage. It was about exploring the rituals that signified transition, particularly in terms of growth. The passage from being a child to adulthood, for example, was often acknowledged by specific rites. They recognize that we no longer hold the status we used to have, and the initiation of our transition that signifies our moving towards the status that represents whatever comes next.
Each of us goes through many transitions in life. Each of us has experienced liminality, whether we’ve recognized or called it that at the time. When we leave one job, but we’ve not yet started the next one, we’re in a liminal space. That’s equally true when we get promoted, but are waiting to assume the role. When we are a designated successor to a position, but the incumbent hasn’t moved on. When we get elected, but have yet to assume office. Our perspective and role is about to change, but for now we’re in transition.
I’ve lived my life in projects. My job, whether I formally call it that or not, is about managing change. You can argue that navigating liminal spaces is the entire focus of my career. And for the most part, that would be pretty much bang on. It’s one of the things that I (mostly) love about what I do; no day is the same as the previous one, and much of what I work on is in transition most of the time.
Not all of us enjoy being in this state, however. There’s a lot of uncertainty, complexity and challenge associated with being in an in-between place. With that frequently comes a lot of stress and anxiety.
That leads to three relatively inescapable conclusions. For starters, liminality is an essential concept in thinking about change. Second, people often don’t enjoy the process. This leads inexorably to number three: if we can know and employ strategies to work through that transition more effectively, we’re all going to be a lot better off.
Moreover, we need to respond to these challenges on a few different levels. We need to manage our own individual challenges and transitions. We also need to manage change as teams. And we have to fundamentally deal with transition and change as organizations.
There are some essential principles that bridge each of these dimensions. A key part of doing this is understanding how liminality works as a concept, and we can best do that by exploring where the idea came from. Arnold van Gennep originally coined the term in his book “Rites of Passage” in 1909. In it, he explored the rituals that mark important passages and changes in individuals and communities.
What van Gennep identified was that there are three essential states that any rite of passage transitions through: preliminal, liminal and postliminal. Preliminal is all about letting go; it’s leaving behind a previous state by breaking with what we have done or who we were in the past. Liminal describes the actual transition, which is presumed to be formal, prescribed and overseen by someone in authority as master of ceremonies. This is where the messiness of transition actually occurs, often through some form of initiation process. And postliminal focusses on reintegrating the person into the society as a new person, in their new role and associated with a new status.
What’s important to recognize is that some of the fundamental principles of organizational change borrow heavily from these ideas, without necessarily acknowledging where they came from. Specifically, Kurt Lewin’s three-phase change model of unfreezing, changing and refreezing fundamentally echoes the process and stages of liminality. Unfreezing breaks down the status quo, changing works through the process of figuring out uncertainty and moving toward a new way of working, and refreezing references the formalization of the new state of being. In essence, change is the rite of passage that organizations follow, and at least in Lewin’s world, that echoes the preliminal, liminal and postliminal stages of van Gennep.
And yet, for all that we can point to these links and reference these concepts, we still don’t deal with change well. It’s messy, difficult and challenging. And while there will always be some level of discomfort and stress in change, that doesn’t mean that it has to be quite so awkward as we often encounter and experience.
In my view, there are a few things we can do to help this happen more effectively (and more humanely). That starts with recognizing where we very often go wrong. The concept of liminality and there recognition of in-between spaces provides a specific and useful lens to do that.
One of the fundamental challenges is about where we place our emphasis in working through transition and change. An essential article of faith—particularly when we think about projects—is the need to emphasize up-front planning. And while planning is important, there is a risk that we place a little too much weight on it than we possibly should.
Planning is useful in that it lets us contemplate what will happen. We can consider goals and objectives, identify necessary activities and actions and assess uncertainties and risks. All of that is incredibly useful. Where we go awry, however, is in our often mistaken belief that if we spend enough time and effort getting the planning right then that will prevent problems from occurring later in the process. The consequence is a perception that planning is everything, and after that we “just” have to execute.
The concept of liminality suggest otherwise. While the preliminal stage prepares us for change and in the postliminal stage we transition to our new way of becoming, the messy work happens in the middle liminal stage. And the characteristics that signify this period is that it is often formal, structured and overseen by a wise sage that carefully guides the process.
What is relevant for initiation processes and rites of passage is also true for organizational change efforts. Moving through the process of change should not be left as a chaotic exercise for those making the change to figure out. It should be guided, structured and formally managed. It should create opportunities to let go of what was, to prepare for the change that is coming and to ultimately realize a new state of working and being.
One of my favourite stories of how this process has been successfully managed was in the transition of a software application. The previous system was archaic and painful. The replacement system was long overdue. But the change was going to be significant, and would require working and functioning in very different ways than the organization had before.
To help mark the transition, two specific events occurred. First, the computer terminals (as I said, this was an old and archaic system) were gathered in a pile in the parking lot. And the users of the old system were provided with sledgehammers. The break with the old was a break indeed. The second thing they did was hold a bonfire, burning all of the manuals of the old system.
These activities fall in the preliminal stage of letting go. But they are incredibly important to acknowledge and mark. And they are what creates the freedom and space to actually make the transition to something different. They signify clearly and emotionally that there is no going back to the old way of doing things. Done well, huge changes can be managed and supported in then transitioning to a new way of being.
The other part that we need to be very clear about in managing change and transition is recognizing the change in status. Again leveraging the ideas of liminality, the transition itself is overseen and guided. We need expert support and wise guidance in moving through the pain and uncertainty of transition. But in the postliminal stage, we take on new status. In this space, the guides of the initiation and transformation process step back, and those who have undergone the rite of passage emerge in their new status.
We need to recognize this in our organizational transformations as well. While people need guidance in figuring out the transition, they also need freedom and autonomy to navigate in the new way of working. They need to be allowed to step up, to strive, to possibly fail, but to figure it out for themselves.
All of this shifts how we think about change and where we put our emphasis. For participants of change, they need to let go, to trust the process to guide them through the transition and to step up and step in to their new roles. For the guides, planners and managers of change, though, the requirements are exactly the opposite. They need to plan and prepare to help people to let go, they need to carefully design and manage the actual process of transition, and then they need to move away and let those they are supporting take over and continue moving forward.
In doing so, things will continue to evolve. Those who are responsible for the new way of being and working will continue to experiment with and make adjustments as they figure out their new way of operating. What gets built will continue to transform. And the architects of change need to let that happen. We may own the in-between space between what was and what will be. But the people we support own what they do with it from there forward.