As companies continue to grapple with the impact of COVID-19, a valuable insight they can bring to strategizing new paths forward relates to coping with the state of limbo — a sense of “in-betweenness” — experienced in a major crisis. One valuable source of insight into this state is the concept of liminality from social anthropology. Arnold van Gennep, a French anthropologist, coined the term in the early 20th century to describe the threshold period between two phases of life — for instance, what adolescents might experience during certain rites of passage.
During a crisis, liminality can be a pervasive, shared experience for people across communities. Learning to harness the benefits of liminality is helpful for coping with the challenges of COVID-19 and is also important beyond the pandemic, given the likelihood of aftershocks from or recurrences of the coronavirus crisis and the emergence of other uncertain events in the future.
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Taking advantage of this transitional period requires managing both opportunities and challenges. Liminality is characterized by ambiguity and can be a time of great creativity for people as their cognition recognizes new possibilities. However, this ambiguity may also be disorienting, triggering panic. This threshold period also heightens our sense of community, offering scope for spontaneous cooperation, even among nontraditional allies, in what Richard Hytner at London Business School describes as a “climate of collaboration and a spirit of insurgency.” However, this fleeting spirit of solidarity may also induce passivity if people begin to take added support for granted. Liminality can also be a period of capability-building for people and teams, given that prior expertise will often have to be modified, augmented, or replaced to meet challenges in the next phase. However, these transformations may go awry if people improvise too much or act impulsively.
The trick for leaders is to harness the upsides of the in-between phase of crisis while avoiding accompanying pitfalls. Three strategies have helped companies meet the demands of the current crisis and will be worth holding on to as we look toward the future. (See “Harnessing the In-Between Stages of a Crisis.”)
1. Pivot calmly using resources at hand. An antidote for panic is working with what is at hand — a principle that anthropologists call bricolage. This might mean augmenting an offering with readily available — and relevant — components. For instance, Shanghai-based health care startup HiNounou first added face masks and hand sanitizer to its health-monitoring kit for elders to use during COVID-19 and eventually released this kit to the wider market as it became broadly relevant.
Another approach is refashioning an existing offering in one realm to make it applicable to another. SenseGiz, a startup that originated in the southern Indian city of Belgaum, applied its expertise in monitoring home and office safety to a social distancing and COVID-19 patient-tracing application that won first prize at an innovation challenge organized by the Indian government. Another celebrated example is ventilators being fashioned out of diving masks.
In contrast to these examples, a young entrepreneur I spoke to within the past few months panicked because the lockdown in his city and associated travel restrictions meant that he simply could not pursue his plan A. He tried to pivot using an expensive new feature that required users to install equipment that was not easy to procure. Thus his knee-jerk reaction was neither sensible nor, in the end, feasible. Working with resources at hand, as opposed to worrying about hard-to-obtain resources, helps managers and entrepreneurs enhance their belief that they, rather than external circumstances, control outcomes. This, in turn, can mitigate initial anxiety or panic brought on by the ambiguity of a crisis. This approach makes practical sense for many companies during a crisis, given that their resource base typically doesn’t expand. If anything, it shrinks.
2. Connect actively, recognizing that support may be temporary. Recognizing the temporary nature of the current situation and, therefore, of available support and resources could be a wake-up call for organizations that prompts proactive change. The U.S. Geological Survey has captured the spirit of solidarity many groups are experiencing in its compilation of open innovation projects focused on COVID-19: One of its lists, titled “The Unusual Players — Spontaneous Efforts,” includes a contribution from a 17-year-old high-school student. In other words, liminality can bring on a Dunkirk-like spirit of spontaneity when actors who normally don’t work with one another are willing to pitch in and help.
On the other end of the spectrum, a colleague recently described an email he had received from a company for which he had volunteered to mentor as conveying a sense of lethargy; its leaders didn’t feel ready to brainstorm and wanted to wait for the dust of the current crisis to settle. What they didn’t seem to grasp is that my colleague’s offer wouldn’t be available indefinitely. Recognizing that external support may be fleeting can instill a sense of urgency that offers an antidote to the danger of slipping into passivity.
In times of uncertainty, early investors and mentors often provide advice and serve as a useful sounding board. Cisco LaunchPad, a corporate accelerator, has provided support for alumni startups — like the previously mentioned SenseGiz — on technology enablement and market access to meet needs arising from the pandemic. Also valuable is generous scaffolding like the Australian Information Industry Association’s business continuity initiative, which provides access to free business services and tools that facilitate remote working arrangements.
When partnering with organizations and providers that are dissimilar from one’s own, tapping the expertise inherent in programs that can help match various solutions with corporate needs can help greatly. For companies, it’s important to recognize that the journey between stages does not have to be a lonely one — but ensuring that will require active effort and engagement.
3. Learn without overreaching by being consistent with one’s DNA. If companies follow the preceding strategies of calmly (No. 1) yet proactively (No. 2) working with internal (or adjacent) resources and external networks, they are more likely to avoid the risk of reckless overreach, by staying true to their DNA as they improvise. Crowdz, a Silicon Valley startup focusing on supply chain finance, recognized a new opportunity to target the small and medium-sized business (SMB) market, as opposed to its traditional customers, who were large trading companies. It pivoted by shifting its messaging and business, based on the technical and business expertise that were already at hand, to show SMBs how they could prequalify for invoice financing. Crowdz found that it could tap into a newfound spirit of generosity among large companies that wanted their SMB suppliers to survive the current economic crisis. Building on these moves, Crowdz then recognized the need to quickly develop new expertise, consistent with its DNA, to build a new feature — in this case, the ability to basket invoices for external funders. Crowdz improvised in a way that was effective yet not impulsive, which helped it avoid overreaching. This type of approach proves successful because even after a liminal transformation, the core values and DNA of a company are likely to remain the same.
For managers, a nuanced understanding of the transitional stage we’re in is critical. While the need to guard against the pitfalls of panic, passivity, and impulsivity can be easy to overlook, taking care to do so will make it more likely that well-intentioned efforts — in terms of creativity, cooperation, and capability-building — are truly not wasted.