On the threshold of Agility

While I was designing the ambiguity bingo card for the blog Ambiguity Bingo - Twelve guidelines for Recognizing transformative situations, the idea came to me to investigate how art and liminality relate to each other. I take you with me on this journey of investigation and come to the conclusion that art can truly help us with balancing on the threshold of Agilty between Chaos an Complicated. I end with practicial activities you can use in your workshops t make this balancing act.

Liminality is a concept from anthropology indicating an 'in between' phase and was first introduced by Arnold van Gennep in his book Rites of passage. An example of such an ‘in between phase’ or ‘threshold’ is the phase of the first days of a university study or a new job. You are no longer a high school student or employee in your previous organization and you are unfamiliar in your new role at the university or new workplace. The creation of the ambiguity bingo card gave me the very strong feeling that we could learn from the liminality in art by dealing with our transitions in complex situations. What is the meaning of a threshold in organizations and how might art help us to endure a liminal phase?

To go back to that feeling when situations are ambiguous, and more explanations are susceptible: we feel discomfort, we experience not knowing, not belonging, alienation and detachment. Ambiguity and liminality are related to each other in that feeling. Ambiguity is more the expression, whereas liminality is more the duration. When we experienve ambiguity intensely, we stand on a threshold.


According to Van Gennep, a liminal phase runs through three stages. The first stage is about separation and concerns behavior in which you become separated from a previously steady status. The old status is 'destroyed' in

preparation for a new one. During the midd lestage every manifestation of rank and role or convictions and identity are discarded. You enter a stage between past and future identities.

In the last stage you exceed this threshold and you make a re-entry into your new role.

Destroy the old

During the past month I organized a workshop about 'stakeholder management for agile consultancy'. The thought is that stakeholder management is different when agile perspectives such as transparency, participation and adaptation are used. Those familiar with stakeholder management, will recognize a) the typical characteristics in identifying stakeholders, b) mapping stakeholders on the axes 'influence' and 'acceptance' and c) plan interventions to secure that the most important stakeholders continue to support the initiative.

In preparation for the meeting I found out that I had to say goodbye to this concept of a stakeholder management first. Even though I had not yet crystallized a new approach to support the initiative, I had already said goodbye to this concept of stakeholder management because this concept cannot be qualified as transparent, participative and adaptive.

The liminal transition

The period that followed was confusing. I did not have the new perspective and could not go back to the old one. The feeling is best described as 'being stuck', like a writer’s block. That period took quite a while and, mainly due to time pressure (the workshop was scheduled for 22 February), it was unpleasant. In the end I went into the workshop with a number of activities, including a game during which I wanted to discover with the participants how you can involve people in an initiative that is more agile in terms of more transparent, more adaptive, more participative and more active.


After implementing the experimental game, I realized that in this new perspective of involving people lay fertile ground. They also saw me as the creator and initiator of this new approach. The above shows how a person can go through the three phases of liminality. However, those phases are not always linear. It is quite possible that I will soon be thrown back into new issues.

The duration of liminality

This insight about liminality led me to formulate the question differently. It was no longer: what expression shows liminality? Instead, it became: how can art help us during liminality? I deliberately choose the concept of ‘duration' instead of ‘time'.

According to the philosopher Bergson, reality is not immobile but just pure movement, self-development, a continuous flow. To this he gives the name durée, duration or continuity. This 'duration', the essence of reality, cannot be understood but can be felt intuitively.

The mind sees Bergson as an instrument that developed in our evolution in the service of our self-enforcement. To this end, the mind divides reality into parts that can be analyzed, understood and used.

Those distinct parts are understood as objects in space or as moments in a time series. The mind understands reality with the help of space and time. Time and space are a human construct (for exmaple: the clock as we know it and Greenwich time started in 1884, shortly before Bergson came up with his philosophy). For Bergson, such an understanding always sticks to the outside of reality: with those frameworks and concepts you can never understand the essence of reality, which for Bergson is continuous development and 'duration'.

Over time (le temps) of intellect and science, Bergson sets the duration (la durée) of intuition and philosophy. Life wants to maintain and unfold. To this end, spiritual faculties develop mind and intuition. And especially the mind (as an instrument for self-enforcement) can only fully develop in the construction by man.

Art plays a role to transcend the self-evident and to open it up. Art can represent our subconscious that is not (or not yet) tangible. To see the impossible dream and connect that dream with an instant action. The surrealism of Margeritte or Dali, for example, are not just expressions of dream images and fantastic paintings. They also inspire the viewer to take different look and to ask questions about what they see. Dadaism goes a step further in the absurdist perspective. Ulysses by James Joyce is a good example of expressing liminality as a state of being. In Ulysses we read about the life of one person on a summer day in Dublin. Improvisation theater is another example of experiencing liminality. Improvisation theatre allows the players and the audience to experience what can emerge during a play.

Liminality and identity

On February 22 I went my brother Edward's solo exhibition of his work of art. The exhibition at De Herenplaats in Rotterdam ys until April 12. Edward's works are characterized by figures with masks. Commenting Edward said he as 16-year-old visited the Wereld Museum in Rotterdam and he became fascinated by the masks be there on display.

Edward gave me an insight into the roles and masks that we wear. The liminality has different layers. On a personal level, on the level of a tribe (a community, an organization, an association or network) or locally, nationally and globally. The masks we wear differs per context: with my family I wear the mask of a father and husband, while at work I wear the mask of an employee and a consultant. These are examples of transitions of masks that I experience without difficulty every day. Modern life seems to be one of many masks. Or as Edward paints, a complex web of behaviors that flow into each other, sometimes evenly sizzling.

Surrealism in his work also made me think. The masks give an alienating effect. The masks with different expression in combination with the bright colors you also experience a not-knowing. Maybe this not-knowing he experiences with his condition, causing it to not always be easy for him to function between so many people, between unknowns of whom he is the conflicting one emotion tries to unite.

As a 13-year-old student I read “De Kelner en de Levenden” van Simon Vestdijk. “The Kelner en de Levenden” ("The waiter and the living") is an allegory of the Last Judgment. The main characters in this "novel of fantasy" are people who live in the same apartment building and the guest of one of them. The twelve are on a railroad station where they get to wait in a waiting room on one of the platforms. They are entertained by a friendly waiter and informed that this is Judgment Day.

I didn’t understand much about this book in the first place. So, I had read the book again on when I was seventeen to understand what this allegory really is about. I learned that the imagination that speaks from literature, fairytales and poems is a powerful resource to transcend the everyday.

Art can evoke feelings of confusion and ambiguity, for example, when you are thirteen years old and you read a book you don't understand. It can also encourage reflection and provide a broader perspective and apparently for granted as non-self-evident to see.

The album Kind of blue by Miles Davis is often comforting enlightening music for me. The music brings me in a different mood. It reminds me of a warm summer evening where I sit in my garden with fragrant honeysuckle. The music has a mind-expanding effect and it helps me to imagine new possibilities.

Liminal Thinking

In his book Liminal Thinking - Create the change you want by creating the way you think, David Gray explains how liminal thinking works. Liminal thinking is a set of skills that anyone can learn to go beyond the threshold. According tp David Gray liminal thinking is the art of finding and using thresholds to create change. It is a kind of mindfulness that allows you to create positive change.

Gray explains in his book how we construct a "Bubble of belief" for an unknowable reality. It all starts with the experience in the reality which is so immense, that we will never fully know it.

To understand this not-knowing set of time I imagine reality as a film in where each moment of reality is projected at that very instant. It is impossible to get to 'now'. Now is infinite much as the 'old now' is already gone, while the 'new now' has yet to begin. The construction of clock time makes us believe we have control over time. Clock time is a belief, or a construction. In order to pay closer attention to reality we can use the experience, and the sensations of seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling. These sensations are rather timeless. The supreme sense of 'now' is when there is no awareness of clock time.

The idea is that getting closer to the timeless experience of reality can lead to new insights and new beliefs. New insights are most needed when beliefs no longer fit with reality and we experience ambiguity. That is when we are on the threshold of a shift to a new belief.

Can art help us in a liminal phase in organizations? For example, when is there this need for transition in an Agile organization? When can art help us when we are on the threshold agility?

On the threshold of Agility

On the basis of extensive research into decision-making, Ralph Stacey sets questions on two axes: 1) the degree of complexity of content and

2) the degree of relational complexity. There are 4 domains of decision making in his so called Stacey Matrix:

  • Rational & Obvious

  • Complicated

  • Complex

  • Random & Chaos.

Agile working lends itself especially well in the domain of the complexity. That is the domain in which you a) do not know how factors and actors act on each other and b) the predictability of the results is low. The behavior of people working together to get results is controlled by taking small steps, often accompanied by experiments. The sprint with a fixed time within which we can handle uncertainty is a good example of dealing with complexity

There are two typical situations within this model discern where we can examine how you can contribute to enduring liminality. The first in the model indicated as on the threshold or chaos. This relates to situations we consciously - checked - look to expose us to get chaotic experiences to learn from it. It is a temporary experiment in which that liminality manifests itself. The second is on the threshold of complication, when a number of experiments have a certain pattern to have let see, an innovation at a certain place somewhat predictable functions and considered is to scale up innovation and spread.

During the quest for liminality and art I experienced the two forces. When I began, I expected it would not be too difficult to write a blog about liminality in art. Soon I found out that it was hard to find art that expresses the feeling of liminality. The realization came that ambiguity is an expression during a phase of liminality. Then I took a broader look and found myself on the threshold of chaos. I dived into books about art, went to musea and finally found a piece by someone real close to me: my brother. Because of him I found artists who lived in confusing times and expressed this confusion through art.

The best example I found – I think – was made by Magritte: On the Threshold of Liberty (1937). It depicts a very large room containing four walls all paneled with different windows or scenes. Each panel depicts a different scene or subject; some include fire, sky, forests, wood, a house with windows, or a female torso and some spherical bells. A canon is present on the right-hand side of the painting, inside this large room. The picture of this painting is at the top of this blog.

I started to make my search more focused because the month was nearly done. I found myself in the threshold of complication when I searched for activities usable for workshop. My search for guidance in art and agility is not yet finished and still goes on. For now, I like to end with some practical concrete suggestions for workshop activities. You can use these activities to stimulate a group of people to get more into the threshold of chaos or into the threshold of complication, and to stay with them in the threshold of agility.

Activities to move to the thresholds of Agility

Inspired by practices David Gray proposed to liminal thinking, I offer here a number of activities that deal with Agile liminality, supported by art.

Examples of workshop activities to move to the threshold of Chaos:

  • Make Poetry with Change In 1920, one of the founding members of Dada, Tristan Tzara, wrote instructions for making a Dada poem, and the communicating ideas up to chance.

  • Postcards from paintings Write "postcards" from each of the three locations represented by three paintings. The postcards should include a description of the places that is created by each location.

  • Social PresencingTheatre: Stuck exercise It is a process by which one experiences going through the whole (Sculpture 2) (emerging future). We do not know what the movements will be where they will stop, but we can follow the movement and then reflect on our experience. Surprising insights can arise.

Examples of workshop activities to move to the threshold of Complicated:

  • Write your own manifesto Read André Breton's First Manifesto or Surrealism (1924) and write your own.

  • Tools as solutions Design a tool that can help to alleviate a frustrating problem

  • Impress - Express Consider and compare, being an impressionist and an expressionist with the inspiration of paintings.

  • Make a Soap Put ideas to live and improvise a soap in three chapters.

These and many more activities can be found in the download page or on Social Presencing and the MOMA. I wish you a fruitful journey to a new status unfolding new insights and new identities.