Tagged: liminal state

Threshold concepts

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Threshold concepts” is a term from higher education theory, meaning an idea or a piece of knowledge which, once understood, is transformative – it changes how you look at a subject, what you think is possible.

My friend Jim Byford introduced me to the idea of threshold concepts and I’ve been using it ever since (neatly, it is of course, in its own way, a threshold concept).

Taking a look at some information about the idea, I came across a summary of a conference on threshold concepts in New Zealand, which called out the following characteristics:

• transformative but also potentially troublesome,
• irreversible, that is, difficult to unlearn,
• Integrative – revealing previously hidden knowledge,
• Re-constitutive – effecting a change in the learner’s subjectivity,
• Bounded – leading to new conceptual terrain,
• Discursive – changed, and
• possessing liminality – a space to be crossed, a shift in identity, that may be uncomfortable.

Powerful, dangerous things these threshold concepts, aren’t they?

Part of digital transformation is crossing through difficult terrain – personally and as organisations. Transformation’s not something you simply decide to do and flip a switch – it is a period when we realise that you what we do not understand and are struggling to understand. You decide to make yourself confused and uncomfortable for a while, effectively, as it is the only way to get to the breakthroughs you need. 

A related concept is “liminality”, which I’ve discussed here before. Liminality is something that needs to be explained before you can start to learn. The same conference paper discusses it like this: 

Unsettling the learning takes students, once they have penetrated the boundaries of former thinking and practices, to a new space, the liminal space where new ways of speaking can be manifest. Recognising and re-naming ideas in relation to the new space can be transformative and moves the learning forward, “it makes the theory ‘sticky’”. All the same, as Erik cautioned, there needs to be an awareness of the range of participants “being squeezed into the liminal space” and what this can mean.

I find this description reassuring. Talking about some threshold concepts – for instance exponential growth – evokes really strange responses from people sometimes – defensive, aggressive and essentially grief-like at times.

On a lighter note, it’s not all journeys through the valley of darkness and confusion – playfulness has a role too…

It was suggested that playfulness can allow a retreat from the perceived constraints of the given discipline and that “playing on the thresholds of the discipline can be a way of escaping the discipline” or as a way of navigating a changing world.

But working with these concepts is not easy, they say, and possibly not for everyone:

Unsettling ideas can result in a form of disequilibrium. While there was some advocacy for “being comfortable in one’s own skin” it was also clear that adopting TCs was not for the faint-hearted.

The area I’ve been working with threshold concepts on is a kind of digital literacy for leaders – the skills, knowledge, models and threshold concepts that leaders need to gain in order to be successful, by leading organisations in a digital age (acknowledging that some schools of thought say that organisations will need to be leaderless or full of leaders). Call it digital leadership. I’ll write more about that soon, here and on the Brilliant Noise blog - for now I just wanted to think out loud about threshold concepts.

Threshold concepts offer advanced ideas and tools for those with resilience and leadership potential. There is also a requirement for us to understand what digital literacy will look like for people with other needs and capabilities in organisations, but leaders are a good place to start.

Things I learned from Ed Catmull

 

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A few months ago I heard Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, give a talk about leading creative organisations.

Apart from his obvious experience and track record of success, what was clear was that he had thought very deeply about some crucial questions about leadership.

These are some notes about what he said and thoughts that he provoked. To be clear – they are not direct quotes – they are my recollections and thoughts based on my notes of his talk (what I learned rather than what I heard).

Be prepared for near death experiences on projects. All Pixar movies “suck” at first. They are radically altered again and again until they work. Every Pixar film except one – Toy Story 3 – has  gone through a phase of intense crisis during its development.

Most people want to avoid the “near death” part of the creative experience, but it is very often essential in order to get to something really good. (This reminded me once again of the valley of creative despair that is the liminal state.)

A leader’s job is to maintain a balance of power. In a studio – just like an agency – there are business functions like finance, production, creative, marketing, technology etc. Organisations fail when one of these functions “wins” and dominates the others with its agenda.

For instance, in studios where production wins, films are produced on time and on budget, but creatives become demoralised and produce lower quality work and talent leaves. A CEO or President needs to make sure that no part of the organisation becomes dominant and skews resources with its particular agenda.

Business books are curiously free of content. Very often business books state obvious truths and avoid more difficult questions.

Smart people make stupid decisions. This is a puzzle that more business books could do with taking on – rather than succumbing to narrative bias, or focusing on successes. There should be more books about failure, more conversations about why we do stupid things.

Leaders can’t see the things that are going wrong. When an organisation is bound for failure What are the forces that I can’t see, is the question a leader needs to constantly ask themselves. People will be behaving badly at times – but they will never do it in front of you.

You need to make the information flow separate from the organisational structure. This reminded me of Churchill, who set up the Office for National Statistics so he could hear what was really going on – rather than allowing each department to gather data and report in their own way, influenced by their various agendas.

You need people to be candid, not just honest. Politeness, respect, embarrassment, fear, blinkered-visions/solipsism, and other things can stop people from being candid. His job as CEO is to spot those things and stop them. Often leaders will prevent candour with their presence in a room, unless they build trust and make it clear what behaviours are acceptable.

Protect new ideas. New ideas are vulnerable, delicate things. If they are good ideas they need to be protected, allowed to develop in a safe space. Success at Pixar and other creative companies is about creating safe spaces for creatives and ideas to flourish.

We are always operating in a fuzzy space. We have to be comfortable doing that. Again, invoking the liminal state for me, Dr Catmull talked about the need for creative leaders and creatives to work in and with uncertainty. We cannot deliver genius on schedule, we need to be comfortable with that. We do not know what the final iteration of the story will look like, we have to be comfortable with that. We don’t know what the technology or media landscape will look like more than about six months from now, but we have to make plans for the next six years – and know they may look as different in the final version as Up looked from the first idea for that story (a castle floating in the clouds full of people at war with the people on the ground, apparently)…

Artefact Cards and liminal states: creative thinking breakthrough tools

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There’s a long, long list in my subconscious that I hardly dare look at: Things I Should Have Blogged.

The items comprise three types:

  • Important ideas that have taken up residence in my head. For instance, liminal states.
  • Useful tools and ways of working. For instance Artefact Cards.
  • Opinions taking shape. For instance, just because a system like digital advertising is  corrupted doesn’t mean it won’t be with us for decades to come.

I may come back to the third and pot it out in the nursery of ideas here on this blog, with a media agency-proof fence around it to give it a fair chance of developing or not, but for now I’ve got a chance to right the first two examples in one post.

This week, I had a lovely conversation with John Willshire, who developed the Artefact Cards product, about how I have been working with them. You can listen to the whole thing here as John recorded it with a very snazzy microphone and iPad Mini set-up.

Artefact Cards are a really simple tool. Playing card size bits of card, white on one side and coloured on the other. You draw words and pictures on them with a Sharpie pen and them lay them out, re-arrange them and in this way organise thoughts and ideas.

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As we talked, we got onto the subject of the liminal state in the creative thinking process (which for my money includes developing strategy). My friend Jim Byford introduced me to this immensely useful concept.

In the context of creative and strategic thinking, the liminal state is what you find yourself in just before you have a breakthrough, or just before you fully understand something, make it yours. For instance, if you can recall trying to learn your lines for a play, the liminal state is where you are just before the words settle and take up residence in your memory – and then you can start using them, adding your inflections and emotions, making them your own.

I’ve very often found the thinking at this point in the creative process intensely uncomfortable. Whether writing a book or a plan or a pitch – it’s a kind of temporary agony, a dark tunnel I pass through where I think you know nothing and will never have another good idea again, and then it passes and there’s the the idea I need, the answer that fits.

Knowing that this is something called a “liminal state”, it makes it easier to handle. In psychology / neuroscience, this is an example of “affect labelling“. If you can name the feeling you have, you can put yourself slightly outside it, understand what is happening to you and that it will pass.

The other thing that understanding the liminal state does is help you to stop trying to “jump to the answer”, as Jim put it to me. Because liminality feels uncomfortable, you want out – to end the feeling and go with the first idea, the obvious one, the easy one. The danger here is that your creative/strategic solution will be mundane, run-of-the-mill and doomed.

You have to go through the confusion, live with it for a little while, sit still while the ideas and thoughts, disconnected and jagged, whiz around your head.

Then they settle. Then you see it: what it is all about.

It’s simple, it was there all along… as Duncan Watts points out, it feels obvious once you it is something that you understand. You pitch it to yourself: it works. You pitch it to a colleague: they don’t hate it, maybe even like it. With each airing the idea gains coherence, legitimacy – becomes more eloquently and credibly articulated as you and others breathe belief into the thing.

Speaking with John Willshire about how I had been using his Artefact Cards, I realised that I like them because they are a good tool for helping that settling process, of working steadily through the seemingly nonsensical maze of thoughts, ideas and concepts and helping some kind of order emerge. Much like throwing down ideas on a white-board, scribbling out mind-maps or any other visual thinking method – but they feel slightly more agile – you can move ideas around, try them in different shapes more rapidly.

In the example I talk about, it’s not even that I reached the solution – the outline of an ebook in this case, but I was able to move on to that only after I had made sense of all of the ideas. Seen their shape laid out in this way. That’s something John says is a recurring theme in people’s use of the cards – seeing the “shape of ideas”.

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Artefact Cards are another tool in the box for thinking, perfect sometimes for working through those liminal states. Worth a spin with the trial pack, I reckon.