Get uncomfortable: how liminal space is the key to unlocking your team’s creative potential

When we are uncomfortable, we will do what we can do neutralize the threat or end the discomfort. We will try almost anything, and we’ll come up with it quickly.

Have you ever been miserable at a job and wanted to quit, but done nothing about it? Then perhaps you lost that job and kicked your jobsearch into high gear. Have you ever been stranded on the side of the road and MacGuyver’d your way out of trouble? Having no choice but to come up with ideas is survival innovation. It’s fast and sloppy — far from perfect — but it’s definitely innovative.

As humans, we like to be comfortable and we seek opportunities to find comfort. When we’re comfortable, we don’t have to think. Evolutionarily, how lucky we are to be able to be comfortable! But the comfort distracts us from using our innovative instincts.

When we are uncomfortable, we will do what we can do neutralize the threat or end the discomfort. We will try almost anything, and we’ll come up with it quickly. Get uncomfortable and wake up this innate ability to fix what’s wrong. This is one of the reasons Escape Rooms are so popular. It is a space created to induce discomfort and anxiety (the timer ticking away, the locked door, the sense of competition) with all of your mental resources collectively trying to find creative solutions.

Are you too comfortable? Is your team? Let’s make them uncomfortable by creating liminal space.

The concept of liminal space is the idea that by creating a psychologically uncomfortable (read: different) setting, the brain functions in a heightened state of awareness.

You have experienced liminal space before — an airport before it’s really open, a school after closing or during the summer, a familiar store with the lights off. It’s the reception hall after the wedding is over and the lights come on to start cleaning up — a once crowded and alive space is now empty.

Liminal space is both the space between (the transitional space) and a different experience of a familiar space. I’m not suggesting that we throw your entire team into an abandoned shopping mall. Liminal space is difficult to create in a professional environment, and discomfort is not something you want your team to experience, but it can be done on a very simple level that still shakes things up and makes people feel slightly out of their element.

How can you recreate that sensation with your team, without making them squirm inappropriately?

1. Make them do something uncomfortable.

One of the first things I like to do in a room full of bored-looking people is to make them switch seats. They look at me like I am insane. Some won’t even participate (I call them out on it. I want them to be very uncomfortable. I might enjoy that a little bit). It’s not a power play or a control move. It’s to a) get the blood flowing, b) get people to think a little differently, and c) create a clear division between “then” and “right now.”

2. Change locations.

As simple as this sounds, changing patterns and traditions is a very easy way to make people uncomfortable. Have your meeting offsite in a non-traditional room. It doesn’t matter if it’s here or in Hawaii, a corporate conference room is still a corporate conference room. The elements are all familiar — pitchers of water, those weird leather writing pads, the gold-tipped pens you twist to use that come in only blue or black, the dusty projector and maybe a white board, if you’re lucky.

Try somewhere else. Maybe a coworking space? A classroom? A café?

3. Introduce new methods or processes.

Try a new brainstorm method, or a collaborative ideation process, or a creative activity that pulls people away from comfort zones. Even just by changing up your normal agenda, you’ve already shaken things up. 

With these considerations, you may realize what you thought were meeting must-haves were really just traditions. Try going without them. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but that’s why we’re here, right?

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