From Normal to Liminality to “New Normal” Seven Tips for Business As Mission in the 2020 Era of COVID-19

The term “liminal” means to be in an intermediate state, phase, or condition.  The root term limen come from the Latin means “threshold”.  Its first use was by an ethnographer, Arnold van Gennep, who connected it to three rites of passage:  the separation or detachment from a stable environment; the margin which is an ambiguous state; and the aggregation by which the passage is completed and the person has crossed into a new stabilized state.  The second stage is the liminal period.

Most of the world today is in a liminal state.  And most business startups and BAM established businesses are in liminality, or ambiguity today. Even theologians define liminal space, as being the sacred space between the familiar and the unknown. It is where transformation takes place.

However, it is natural for humans to try to avoid liminality. Even though we may not have heard the word liminal before, we likely have a sense of how it applies to our world today. Therefore, we quite likely don’t like the state of liminality. “It would be difficult to exist in this time of global crisis and not feel caught between at least two worlds—the one we knew and the one to come. Our consciousness and that of future generations has been changed. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle”.1

As I am writing this, my wife came in and said she was going to bake bread for dinner tonight.  We haven’t had home-baked bread for years.  And our daughter-in-law is growing tomatoes and peas; can you believe it?  We all know about reduced use of fossil fuels and are familiar with social distancing. Could it be that as uncomfortable as much of this is, it might be a place and state for creativity, deconstruction and construction, new choices, and transformation?

Historical liminal examples might include the transition toward the abolition of slavery, the discovery of vaccines, and Henry Ford’s Model T replacing the horse-drawn carriage. Liminality is somewhat linked to Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation, which I have written about here. There was a transition after Toyota began to disrupt the auto industry; when computers moved into personal data processing; and when distance education began to disrupt traditional classroom learning. When considering disciples of Jesus, it is incumbent that we ask ourselves what He has in mind for each of us in these liminal times. How can we grow spiritually? Where are we to act differently for Kingdom purposes? How are we being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ? What are we to do differently?

These were liminal times.  Today is a liminal time.  We can fight it; we can welcome it, but we should ask ourselves – what does it mean for me – for good or ill?

What of our BAM businesses today, and … tomorrow?

  1. Small businesses should get their most creative talent together and make every effort to analyze reality and make new constructive plans. For example, my doctor’s office called this week and set up a telemedicine appointment.  Two days later, I was in front of my computer with my doctor on his and I was told what to do. I know a BAM coffee company which has switched to curbside pickup and home delivery, and their income is 95% of former times. Start now to think about working from home and accelerate agility and rapid decision-making without tedious meetings and historical protocol. “For working from home to be sustainable, companies need to help their staff create those boundaries: the kind of interaction that used to take place in the hallway can be taken care of with a quick phone call, not a videoconference. It may also help to set “office hours” for particular groups, share tips on how to track time, and announce that there is no expectation that emails will be answered after a certain hour.”2
  2. Entrepreneurs focus on need, opportunity, problem-solving and making the world a better place. Now, more than ever is the time to look for such existential risks and make a business plan to mitigate those risks and solve a future problem today. An example is the comeback in drive-up movie theaters, because of the practical and legal issues connected to traditional movie theaters. We coach some BAM tourism companies, and tourism will take a hit for some time to come. Such companies might want to look into virtual tours to some of their locations, and link with some digital providers to sell their product.
  3. Education will continue to morph or more likely, radically change. Existing For-Profit schools will need to figure out creative digital responses to traditional teaching techniques. A BAM friend in SE Asia is already working on developing software which could increase his profitability, but also provide a model for worldwide teaching of English to foreigners. When I visited Zimbabwe and Zambia earlier this year, I discovered a young lady developing an electronic solar-fueled tablet for the thousands of unschooled children who were already using a prototype to learn in thatch roofed huts, miles from the nearest school.  There are multiple BAM opportunities in that picture.
  4. The economic interdependency between Asian countries like China, Korea, and Japan with North America is certainly at risk for change when it comes to export-import, supply chain issues, and trade compliance. Supply chains will need to be redesigned to increase resilience, flexibility, reliability, collaboration, and speed.  BAM companies in this space may need to be looking for new markets now before it becomes more difficult to develop new opportunities; and that may feed into the perceived need worldwide to “buy local”.
  5. Communication for sure will be different and BAM consulting companies will need to improve their tools for coaching abroad and within countries. While IBEC depended on physical visits in the early years (and I still consider those useful), more and more can be done with virtual reality and advanced on-line platforms. Even traditional companies can benefit from fewer office silos and better networking tools. My daughter earned her MBA on-line with working cohorts in one of the top International MBA programs in the US. They learned to effectively work in teams. BAM companies like the Cloud Factory already use contractors who work from their home on a digital platform. Even some freedom businesses may be able to promote their creative work from home, thus reducing costs and maintaining production.
  6. It may be time, once and for all for companies to realize that the world is too complex and changes coming too quickly to do it alone. Now more than ever, partnerships, alliances, equity investors, and consultants must be at the top of every owner and manager’s vocabulary and planning strategy.  More than one BAM company which has survived ten years or more has told me how they wished at the beginning that they had retained coaching and consulting help. They recognized their own arrogance and regretted it.  The recent pandemic demonstrates the fact that we (as we hear so often) “are in this together.”
  7. Kingdom Business owners are committed to the principles of the Quadruple Bottom Line: Profitability/Sustainability; Job Creation; Disciples of Jesus and Creation Care. Though it may be an overused question; it is good for BAM owners to ask, “What would Jesus do?” There quite likely will be answers that are not directly related to business issues, but simply be God-honoring actions for desperate times.  One such BAM manufacturing company in East Asia is doing just that. Due to the COVID-19 situation, a student from Rwanda was stranded, unable to continue study at her college and unable to return home to Africa. The American family simply took her in, providing food and lodging to a stranger. The event included visitors from five different nations for meals and encouragement. In the words of my BAMer friends, “It’s about serving the body, even strangers, when they are in need, teaching our children about hospitality, and putting our plans on hold…”. Almost sounds Biblical and what Jesus might have done.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 135–138.

Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

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