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Get More Out of Your Checklists: Liminal States in Software Delivery

When we spend time focussing on specific problems, it comes at the cost of the ability to focus on others. The mind becomes conditioned to make certain things invisible, no matter how many times we look them over.

In the case of this article, it might be a spelling mistake, but in the case of a product it can be all kinds of things — bugs, designs, even market fit.

But we can learn to see again. There are ways to escape the myopia, and one is the power of liminal thinking.

Rites of Passage

Transitions are an important part of human society. The “rite of passage” shows up in many forms across many different cultures, as people move from one stage of life into the next. They signify a change of status, and are said to have three phases:

  1. Pre-liminality, a “breaking away” from the past. The metaphorical death of the previous status.
  2. Liminality, where the subject is dislocated and temporarily lives outside the normal environment. Fundamental questions about knowledge and existence are brought to the foreground.
  3. Post-liminality, where the subject is re-incorporated into the environment with a new status.

In the liminal period, we enter a state where we are leaving something behind, but not yet fully in something else. We are able to look outside of the context of our normal day to day experience, entering a period of scrutiny where we re-examine our reality.

After years building and releasing software products, I am noticing how liminality plays out in the process of delivering our software. It’s a useful mental model that can help us improve our systems and experiences.

The Event

Our systems enter into liminal periods through events.

Scrum is designed to continuously evoke transitional thinking through the use of various events — sprints, retrospective, refinements. During these events, we use liminality to remember tasks forgotten, find the issues left languishing at the backlog bottom, see the mistakes that should have jumped off the page.

There are also larger events as a product passes through lifecycle phases, like the beginning of early field trials, or a large public launch. As we approach these events we bring in the managers, pull out the checklists, and probably have an assortment of walkthroughs, reviews and check-ins.

Those product lifecycle transitions are great opportunities to take advantage of liminality. We can do much more than just reserve a time to review a specific set of work — testing, monitoring, security, etc.

The Liminal Space

What leadership needs to focus on is creating a liminal space for teams to inhabit.

We can use structure and semiotics to amplify the state of mind. For example, we can use bookend meetings to signal that we are entering and exiting the liminal space.

That way, when we go through the process of reviewing things, we will do more than just check boxes: we will question the intention and existence of those check boxes. We will find new ways to extend their intention and existence into our continuous processes.

Note that we may even feel a sense of guilt or shame as we engage in this process. “How could we have overlooked this? How could we have not noticed that? How did we collectively forget to do something so important?”

Fear not! Foregrounding the invisible is the goal. Software is synthetic, so we should never expect to know everything about it, and always be ready to uncover the unknown and unexpected.

Be careful not to punish yourself or others for what you may find, as it will set back the entire process. Proceed into the liminal period without judgment. Create a safe, blame-free space to reflect.

Liminal Thinking

The anthropological study of liminality tells us that it is a special and privileged time. If we recognize that we can use harness the energy to do more than just scrutinize the work: we can also revisit the central values and axioms that guided its creation.

That is what we should strive to do in this period: inspire liminal thinking. At the heart of the process is questioning the very existence of the feature itself. “Someone remind me, why did we build this?” This is a time of renewal, refresh and rebirth.

So my suggestion is this: use this time to get creative and imaginative.

Don’t ignore the opportunity for liminal thinking. Don’t just go through the motions and check the boxes. Do the reviews and the retrospectives and the rethinking, knowing you have the capability to see your system in a different way in this time.

Discover what you have unconsciously learned to unsee, question everything, and feed this back into your product and your experiences.

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John Rauser

John Rauser

Director of Engineering @ Cisco Umbrella

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