Why You Need Liminal Space for Seamless Change

I recently got home to San Francisco after a long drive from Montana with my son. Over two weeks, our family took turns driving with him from Boston across the United States. Why? My son just graduated from college, and we wanted to create liminal space for him to celebrate what he accomplished and to prepare himself for the future.

Why Do We Need Liminal Space?

Liminal space is the “in between” as you go from one state to another. Think about how many rituals we have to mark transitions: professional ones, like orientation. Personal ones for graduations, weddings, funerals, and informal “purges” to mark moves or breakups. We mark the passage of time with anniversaries and birthdays and New Year celebrations.

“Liminal” comes from the Latin word meaning “threshold,” and it’s an unavoidable part of change. Unfortunately, many organizations view change as something to go through as fast as possible. But as I shared in my livestream last week, a more effective and disruptive way to change is to slow down and actually create the liminal space of in between. This also creates space mentally and emotionally to expand on possibilities and opportunities.

What Makes Change So Difficult?

One word: uncertainty. It’s tough when what you hold dear dissolves away. Even if you’re eager for the change, it’s uncharted territory! Liminal space gives meaning and structure to the change, which helps us manage uncertainty.

It’s important to treasure these liminal spaces and treat them with respect. These rituals help us move from the current state we know to a new state. But I see very little liminal space being intentionally created within organizations. How can we harness liminal space to embrace change?

Three Steps to Create Liminal Space for Change

If you’re anticipating change in your organization — and who isn’t as we go back to the office or transition to a fully hybrid workforce? — make sure you create liminal space to support seamless change:

1. Prepare with open eyes.

Many times we skip the preparation for a change. We don’t ask ourselves, what does it mean to let go of here so we can be there?

To prepare with open eyes you must embrace the fact that you’re going through a change and be clear on what it is. It’s also important to say goodbye. Give yourself time to tie up loose ends and clear the decks. If you don’t separate from the past, you can’t let it go.

  • If you’re letting go of your office building, you could invite employees to come in for one last time to say goodbye or even have a goodbye party.
  • If brainstorming for the future, explain why you are contemplating going on this journey, even if the destination isn’t clear or certain.

2. Structure and guide the change.

When I see organizations going through digital transformations, what separates successful from unsuccessful transformations is structure.

If you’re not clear on the sequence of events, the uncertainty inherent in change becomes unmanageable. You also need a master of ceremonies: somebody in charge of guiding this process. That’s why the leader’s role is so important! You are the person people turn to for reassurance, because they need continuity while going through uncertainty and change.

  • Communicate clearly what the transition to a smaller office and hybrid team will be like. Anticipate roadblocks and recommend how employees can address them.
  • When brainstorming options, use guiding questions to lead people through the process, asking: “If X is true, what does that mean for Y?”

3. Integration.

Once you’ve discovered the “new you” or “new organization,” you must bring it all together. How can you intentionally engineer the outcomes you desire so everyone feels comfortable and understands how to move forward?

  • Check in regularly with your employees to learn how the hybrid model is working for them. Do they miss anything? Need anything? What perks can you offer your team that this new state of being enables?
  • Once new ideas are on the table, any dissonance or conflicts with today’s reality need to be addressed with detailed execution plans.

The challenge for disruptive leaders is that we are tasked with creating huge amounts of change. And there’s a tendency and pressure for us to lead people through the change as quickly as possible. Because, frankly, it’s disconcerting to be in that transition space!

I urge you to take a different approach. Build into any change that sacred liminal space so that you and your team can move through uncertainty and embrace a new state with open arms.

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