Innovation is a challenging journey into liminality

A colleague once told me that the psychology of progression can be understood as leaving the comfort zone and plunging into the depths of the development zone. Here everything is open for discussion, in flux, in a space of possibility. Exploration in this environment is where innovation is found.

However, this strange and undetermined territory is not for everyone. It involves overcoming a series of hurdles, obstacles and challenges. Only a few manage to persevere the adversity of this domain, whose uncertain nature triggers all kinds of anxieties and emotions. For this reason, you can only sustain the ‘development zone’ for a certain period of time. Once you have tested the waters you must return safely back to your ‘comfort zone.’  

Development is not a pitstop

This metaphor assumes that ‘development’ is something you can go back and forth to, tap in and out — but it is not. True development is something you go through to enter at a new place. The initial metaphor depicts it as a pitstop, a waypoint on your journey to home.  On the contrary, I firmly believe that the true nature of ‘development’ is to enter the unfamiliar, to find a new place, a new home.  

Nevertheless, I recognize traits of my colleague’s theory amongst the creative designers and social researchers I meet and work with. I have noticed that they share one crucially important characteristic: mental endurance. They have a mindset that allows them to tread water in the middle of a wide-open space longer than most.  

Facilitators of liminality

This spring, I had an inspiring conversation with anthropologist Natalja Laurey, an associated professor at the TU Delft. She described innovation consultants as being the ‘facilitators of liminality.’

Liminality is a core concept in anthropology. It is known as the ‘state of transition’; between one life stage to the next (Van Gennep 1960; Turner 1976). It is often used to illustrate the ‘in-between’ phase that occurs during rites of passage, such as marriage and coming of age ceremonies. During this time an individual is in a process of transformation in which their identity is not yet fixed. They discard old ways of being and step into new ways of structuring their identity, time, and community. Liminality is thus the essence of ambiguity and disorientation that occurs during a big life transition.

Today, the concept has been applied to all sorts of contexts that can be described as 'in between.’ For example, scholars have linked liminality to innovation by arguing that the inventive process mirrors the metamorphosis from present to future. Corporate transitions are highly fluid malleable periods that enable the development of new ideas, behaviour and even the blossoming and establishment of culture.  

Natalja Laurey declares that it is our job as design thinkers and innovation consultants to encourage and assist our client’s voyage into ‘liminality.’ Designers and innovation consultants like the people at IS IT A BIRD can be seen as masters of navigating liminality and finding a reorientated path for the client.

"As the facilitators of liminality, we take people by the hand and lead them safely towards the new. We give them direction, security, and confidence. We walk with them"

Liminality in practice

Before this summer, we designed and executed a weeklong sprint with a client. We helped the client to enter a period of new perspectives, insights, creativity, and experimentation that would allow them to give birth to new business opportunities. What happened over that week in our garage was the actual facilitation of liminality.  

This ‘rite of passage’ was supported by the tools that we at IIAB are fully equipped with - exploring customer needs, user-journeys and mindsets to assist the discovery of a ground- breaking territory where innovative insights could begin to flourish. To help our client land safely on the other side of the innovative ‘development zone,’ we created protypes and roadmaps that led the way for a new order and the beginning of endless amounts of possibilities for their business.  

By looking back at this story, hopefully you have learned to view innovation as a process of liminality, where you do not return to the old comfort zone, but rather you arrive at something new —in a new place— which will hopefully give you the feeling of progression and clear direction.

However, we also know that liminality is a difficult space to be in. This is where we, design thinkers and innovation consultants, jump in. As the facilitators of liminality, we take people by the hand and lead them safely towards the new. We give them direction, security, and confidence. We walk with them.

That's our job.

Ready to make the journey into liminality?
Reach out to Rasmus Thomsen (CEO) at +45 60 57 27 27 /