On the boundary of understanding and action — Review of “Liminal Thinking” by Dave Gray

For many years I have been immersed in deepening my understanding to advance the practical application of systems thinking and design work with my clients. Reaching beyond the constraints of the process-driven, clockwork perceptions of the complex challenges and issues that persist in most enterprises requires seeking new perspectives, synthesizing and integrating them for the best effect. This is one the essential reasons why I was thrilled to get my hands on an early copy of Dave Gray’s new book, “Liminal Thinking”.

I have long been a fan of Mr. Gray’s work and I’m looking forward to meeting him next week at BIF2016 in Providence, RI where he is one of the storytellers. For many years I have followed the work of XPLANE, the strategic design consultancy he founded, with great enthusiasm. I also have very well-worn copies of his previous books which I frequently refer to in my practice: Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rule-Breakers, and Changemakers and The Connected Company. His work in making the complex accessible and the challenging fun speaks to the way in which I wish to engage. There is an enthusiasm, humor and joy to his work that so welcome amid the deadly earnestness of so much in the work of working on organizations.

My eagerness to consume Liminal Thinking was well-rewarded. Here is a book that speaks directly to the heart of co-creating meaningful, sustainable change by understanding, shaping and reframing beliefs. Mr. Gray shares clear examples of the ways in which the intrinsic nature of our beliefs, our unconsidered and unquestioned perspectives on how the world around us works, prevent us from taking meaningful action. Worse yet, he shows how our prevailing mindset often prevent us from seeing the problems we need to address.

The most common mistake I see people make in change efforts is to assume that they understand the situation. Sometimes they see a problem one way, when the problem is seen very differently by others. Sometimes other people don’t see a problem at all, or they see a different problem.

By exploring the fundamental nature of beliefs — how they are established, persist, and the role they serve — we see that if we are to change the world we share with those around is we must seek to change our shared beliefs. We also see that beliefs are stubborn in their persistence and inflexibility when it comes to change. More essentially, Mr. Gray helps us recognize that to change collective beliefs we must address our governing beliefs, those beliefs that form the basis for other beliefs, and to do that we must change ourselves.

Liminal Thinking offers great suggestions for challenging our beliefs and doing it in a way that will help evolve not only our thinking about what to change but how to change. Deeply rooted in an empathy-seeking and inquiry-focused approach liminal thinking challenges us to strive for new and deeper understanding the experiences of others. For systems thinkers and design thinkers many of the practices Mr. Gray describes will be comfortably familiar, which is another reason why this is such a useful addition to change practices.

Among the nine practices suggested for effective liminal thinking, “Practice 5: Ask Questions, Make Connections”, and, “Practice 8: Make Sense with Stories”, may be most familiar and readily accessible. They are both practices deeply rooted in the inquiry and experimentation associated with innovative thinking. What liminal thinking adds are practices that offer new framing for those approaches. I was especially drawn to, “Practice 4: Triangulate and Validate”, as it refreshed my thinking about Karl Popper’s work on falsifiability, the possibility that a theory could be proven false. This is such a great tool when exploring the limits of our understanding about those around us. As Mr. Gray notes,

Many theories people have about other people are like horoscopes. They are not falsifiable theories, but self-fulfilling prophecies that can never be disproven.
Just because you can predict someone’s behavior does not validate your theories about them, any more than a horoscope prediction “coming true” means it was a valid prediction. If you want to understand what’s going on inside someone else’s head, sometimes you need to have a conversation with them.

The most welcome aspect of Liminal Thinking is that, like Mr. Gray’s other work, it is eminently practicable. It offers a substantial appendix that provides a clear path from recognizing and understanding beliefs to practices for meaningful action. The model for “unpacking beliefs” is such a simply profound tool for deeper self-awareness and action.

Take the time to open up to Liminal Thinking. I believe it’s worth your attention. After all, what we attend to becomes what matters.