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Q&A with Dave Gray about Liminal Thinking for Organizational Change

| by Ben Linders Follow 13 Followers on Feb 19, 2015. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes |

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The majority of change initiatives fail because people feel that they do not have any influence in the proposed changes and don’t understand how they affect them or would make things better for them says Dave Gray, entrepreneur, designer and author. Liminal thinking is a change approach that focuses on understanding how people construct and change their beliefs. It provides a skill set to create and use thresholds to effect change.

Gray will do a workshop about Liminal Thinking at the No Pants Festival 2015. This conference is held in Antwerp, Belgium from March 9 to 10. The conference consists of workshops and talks on topics like remote working and working in distributed agile teams:

Going remote allows the most talented people to produce the best work regardless of their location. No Pants Festival is about radical ideas and actionable practices that will empower you to go remote, today.

InfoQ will be covering the No Pants Festival 2015 with (live) news, Q&As and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Dave Gray about why change initiatives fail, how liminal thinking addresses organizational change, winning the hearts and minds of people and how to support change as an ongoing process.

InfoQ: You state that "The majority of change initiatives fail to achieve their goals". What do you think are the main causes for failure?

Gray: Most change initiatives are based on a business case and rationale that makes sense for the organization as a whole. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the changes make sense from every perspective in the organization. People tend to resist change when they feel it is being forced on them, when they don’t feel they have a say in it, and especially when it doesn’t make sense from their perspective and they don’t understand how it will affect them.

In order for people to support change, they need to believe it is a good thing, that it will make things better, that it will make their life easier or better in some way. Often, leaders don’t consider all these perspectives, or they communicate in ways that make people feel as if their concerns are not fully understood.

InfoQ: Can you explain liminal thinking? How does this approach address change?

Gray: Liminal is Latin for threshold.

Literally a threshold is a doorway. But a threshold is also a starting point, the initial stage of a transition from one thing to another, a position on the cusp of change. For example, “We are on the threshold of a new beginning.”

Liminal thinking is the art of finding, creating and using thresholds to effect change. It is a way of approaching situations with the system in mind rather than individual interactions. It is a kind of mindfulness that can be applied to the social systems we live and work in.

Liminal thinking is about understanding how beliefs are constructed and how they can be changed. By learning to understand the nature of belief – how they are formed, how they are reinforced, and what is required for people to change their beliefs, you can operate at a much deeper level and a much higher degree of effectiveness than most leaders.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of how you used liminal thinking to get changes done?

Gray: Here’s one example from a company that was having conflict between its sales and engineering teams. The sales team felt pressure from the rest of the organization because they were not meeting their targeted numbers. The engineering team felt that projects were being sold in a way that made great engineering impossible.

This created a vicious cycle that led to lower customer satisfaction and lower sales over time. The more sales felt pressured to perform, the more they would sell projects that were difficult to deliver, to meet their sales goals. The more they sold difficult projects, the harder it was for engineering to make customers happy.

To break this cycle it was necessary to operate at the level of belief. Salespeople needed to change their beliefs about what they needed to do in order to be successful, and in order for salespeople to change, the engineers needed to change their beliefs about sales.

Through liminal thinking, both salespeople and engineers began to understand the underlying organizational and system dynamics that were creating the vicious cycle. This led to changes in belief which resulted in greater cooperation, which eventually broke the vicious cycle. They realized that engineers needed to play a greater role in the sales process. Without changes in belief, the engineering team would have seen this as unnecessary extra work and the sales team would have seen it as unnecessary meddling.

InfoQ: In the liminal thinking approach you talk about winning hearts and minds. What if people are convinced that they do not want to change, and don't want to change their mind? How can you deal with that?

Gray: This is the default setting for most people, including leaders. People tend to prefer the known to the unknown.

One of the principles of liminal thinking is that it is not only about changing other people’s minds, it is also about examining and understating your own beliefs, and having the flexibility to change your own mind. Once people see that leaders can listen and be flexible in their thinking, it makes it easier for them to open up and explore their own beliefs.

If people are convinced that they do not want to change, and don’t want to change their minds, the place to start is by examining your own beliefs and asking yourself why you think the change is so necessary when so many people see things differently.

InfoQ: Change is nowadays considered to be an ongoing process. Changing never stops, organizations and people have to adapt continuously to new situations. How does liminal thinking support this?

Gray: Liminal thinking is not a process with a beginning and end. It is a skill set that you develop and improve over time. Change doesn’t stop, like leadership doesn’t stop. As you say, it’s something you do all the time. Liminal thinking is like listening. You don’t do it once and then say you’re done. You have to do it all the time, and the more you do it the better you get at it.

That’s why I say that liminal thinking is one of the most important leadership skills of the 21st century. If you’re managing a factory, you can walk down the assembly line and see who is doing their job and who isn’t. Modern workplaces are so complex, so connected and so virtualized, a manager can’t simply walk through the office and easily see that work is being done.

To be an effective leader in this digital, connected age, you must be able to engage and inspire people. To do that you need to understand them, and you need to understand what they believe is important and why. That’s what liminal thinking is all about.

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LIMINALITY: A truly essential topic... by Dan Mezick

I am glad to see David (and hopefully many others) studying and writing about this. Agile adoptions routinely fail as people experience elevated levels of stress in the liminal state that is created by the change. Addressing the very real implications of org-wide liminality is THE central idea behind the design of the Open-Agile-Adoption passage-rite structure. Here is is: newtechusa.net/agile/liminality/

Thanks Dan by David Gray

Great thoughts, thanks Dan

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