Operating in liminality – a new game

One of the benefits of having two children at home rather than at school during the COVID-19 lockdown period is the opportunity to learn from them. It is fascinating to see how they interact. Invent games. Enter an imaginary world in their conversation yet remain aware of every little thing happening around them. Switching seamlessly (well mostly!) from follower to leader and back again.

There must come a point where so much of this fluid approach gets lost. We fall in love with process, hierarchy and rules of business. As we enter a period of liminality then we need to embrace a new game and a new approach.

I’ve suggested before that it is time for teams, organisational units, and customers & suppliers to stop playing chess and start playing jazz. Life is moving too fast and is too unpredictable to wait for the other person to make their move before you make yours. We need to develop a together mindset. I have however come across another aspect of playing chess that could be useful.

The suggestion (though I can’t find a source!) is that to get good at playing chess you need to learn to play without the queen. As the most amateurish of chess players I understand that the queen is perceived as the most powerful piece. In business, we have things that are the equivalent. They may be a team, an individual, a product or a revenue stream. The thing that we become so dependent on for success it becomes a barrier to us seeing new opportunities, taking a risk and being inventive.

Pause for a moment now and think about what is the queen-piece in your business. What could you learn to do if you had to operate without it? Is its power holding you back from developing in other areas?

Liminality is the stage of transition from the thing that was to the thing that isn’t yet. It is about change and transformation. We don’t have clarity. We don’t know the answers. We may not even know the questions. As good as it is to plan we also need to adopt a position that gives us options of response.

Basketball players become familiar with the triple threat position. From this stance, they’re able to drive, pass or shoot the ball. This triple threat position allows the player to attack regardless of the defensive strategy that is played against them. This isn’t just about the ability to have the agility and being able to pivot as situations change. Players know they have a common objective in mind – score. The triple threat is about being in the strongest possible place to be able to achieve that regardless of what comes up.

Having thought about your queen-piece you may now want to think about the skillsets you have available. You can’t afford to take a “just-in-time” approach to employee development but need to anticipate the gaps and equip your teams to be able to utilise their strengths. Where you do you need to develop so that you’re not responding to change to survive but setting the pace for others?

Finally, it’s time to stop being constrained by the rules of the game. Not because the rules are wrong but because they need interpretation. Matthew Syed has written in Rebel Ideas about the need for divergent thinking and how being deliberate in building diverse teams can help.

If you’re trying to play a board game then divergent thinking is going to be a problem (at least if no-one is aware you’ve all got a local version of monopoly rules in use!) In business, the willingness to play by different rules creates the opportunities that others can’t see.

Think about who is missing from your team that would see the rules of the game with a different perspective. What do you need to do to get that voice to the table?

Just as my children are constantly learning to play new games together, to bounce ideas about and develop different ways of doing things so we need to do the same in business. COVID-19 has shown us that things can change dramatically in ways that we cannot predict.

Our best hope is to prepare for uncertain futures and I believe that playing jazz, re-thinking your protection of the queen-piece and embracing diversity will be critical not to surviving but being successful.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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