Crossing the Liminal Gap
There are huge breakdowns we are being called to address and equally huge opportunities to restructure everything.
Years before Apple launched the first iPhone, Nokia showed a prototype phone with a color touch screen and the ability to play games and shop online. But they were unable to actually bring it to market, spending long months “strategizing” and mired in internal politics, leading to a billion-dollar loss in the second quarter of 2012 — and the elimination of over ten thousand jobs that year. I remember exactly where I was when I read this news story and how frustrated I felt that rather than protect shareholders and employees by acting, Nokia had actually put both at risk by failing to move forward. While they had access to the same materials and technologies as Apple to advance their projects, Nokia executives did not have a North Star — a clear vision of their purpose — that allowed them to let go of their trusted products and processes and build something new. Apple, by contrast, and with due consideration, was willing to cannibalize some of their current products to develop their next-generation offerings. And as we all now know continues to be one of the highest-valued companies in the world as they shift from a reliance on hardware to a commitment to digital services.
When we envision the shift between one socio-economic era and another, we can see a gap form as old systems are breaking down and new systems are yet to be created. I describe this as the “liminal gap:” the space between now and next; between our present ways of operating and what the future needs; and even between me, the leader, and you, my potential collaborator.
This term was inspired by Nora Bateson, a filmmaker, writer, educator, and president of the International Bateson Institute. In Nora’s view, leadership isn’t exercised across hierarchies; it happens between individuals, in the specific context of each relationship. By recognizing this liminal space between where we came from in the past and what we must build next, we can create the practices we need to cross the gap.
There are well-told examples of companies that failed to recognize the next opportunities and fell into the liminal gap. There’s the classic story of Blockbuster arrogantly declining to buy Netflix, even when presented with the opportunity more than once. Blockbuster went bankrupt in 2010, and Netflix is now worth more than ExxonMobil. Valued at $302.1 billion, Netflix is now worth more than 50x what Blockbuster was worth at its peak.
The pressure is on to keep up with new innovations. And fortunately, there is a growing list of encouraging stories that demonstrate how. Take shipping giant AP Moeller Maersk. In a digital world, a company like Maersk isn’t just competing with other shipping companies; they are actually defending against other logistics leaders, such as Uber. Despite their colossal size, Maersk is finding new ways to navigate through key technological shifts, using artificial intelligence to slash their fuel costs, and build a blockchain- enabled digital shipping platform called TradeLens that provides supply chain visibility in real time. Maersk now accounts for more than half of the world’s ocean container cargo.
In May of 2019, Salesforce unveiled a new blockchain platform that extends the power of customer relationship management (CRM), helping users build and maintain complex blockchain networks, apps, and smart contracts, with simple drag-and-drop programming. Gartner predicts that blockchain solutions will result in $176 billion in added business value for companies by 2025, and $3.1 trillion by 2030. Worth noting, last year they also hired a Chief Ethics and Humane Technology Officer knowing making these big shifts requires not just action, but thoughtful action. Just as CVS is closing physical stores to focus resources on digital health services and Facebook became Meta, there just is no standing still these days. There is, however, a growing lag between those who are building the new and the rest sorting through how to adapt to it.
Some leaders have already been taking on big challenges like the ethics of AI, sustainable supply chains, and having a drone deliver lunch, putting them firmly ahead of the curve. This isn’t just about headlines: consultancy BCG reports a growing gap between those in the top quartile of profitability and those in the last that is wider than it has been in the past 30 years. In an exponential world, enterprises that continue to dive into new learning rather than snapping back to “normal” will cultivate the insight and the data that will pull them further ahead, making it even more difficult for second- and third-wave players to catch up.
Our work, then, is to learn to confidently navigate the space between the now and the next; to boldly make the leap between the old systems, practices, and mindsets of the industrial age; to move toward the dynamic, collaborative potential that the digital future offers.
Sitting in Our Own Liminal Gap
This concept doesn’t only apply to organizations. It also applies to us as professionals…and as humans. The past years have forced us all to consider who has our backs — in our homes, in our communities, with the retailers and brands we trust, with our governments and with our work. Are the social contracts we all believed in (eg. hard work = steady growth and recognition or that efficiently replicating the playbook of the past will keep us safe) still holding us well? Are the issues we have been focused on the ones that really need our attention now? Let’s face it, society itself in huge liminal gap as this tweet summed up for me one day:
“We are being called to address increasingly complex problems with increasingly dire consequences, while recognizing that the support systems we have relied on for decades are crumbling.”
This has prompted the “Great Reshuffle” as we dig deeper to consider which structures are holding us well, which we can rely on, and where we really want to put our energies. And I worry this will begin to hit most of us even harder. While I actually found comfort in this tweet when I bumped into it thinking “exactly! so this means we now can rebuild all the broken stuff! let’s go… !”, it’s because I have a good sense of what is possible. Now is the time we need to all pull out our internal compass and consider both how the future is taking shape and what we are each in a unique position to create and contribute to it.
“What frightens many people is not being seen as the ‘expert’ and yet how can you create and innovate when you are not willing to let go and explore the unknown? There is no roadmap or blueprint where the creators of a healthy world are headed, and that is exhilarating to the pioneers among us.”
— Ayelet Baron, award-winning author, former Cisco global strategist
Recently, I was gifted time with a friend I haven’t seen in years; a person who’s work and path I have long admired. She greeted me with a big hug, a relieved sigh and the confession that: “Nancy, I can’t wait to catch up, because honestly, I’m clearly facing my own ‘liminal gap’ right now” as she takes in the shifting terrain under her work and the bigger calling it presents. Most of us are.
I encourage you to find a little time to check in on where you are on this journey from here to there. There are huge breakdowns we are being called to address and equally huge opportunities to restructure everything from work to money to manufacturing to food production to healthcare and more! We don’t have to have all the answers. We just have to tune in to where we are most needed.
Take time to breathe deeply. And trust we are exactly who the future needs to build it well.