Kurt Lewin’s Change Model

Change management can be challenging, but it is a well-trodden path.

People have thought about it hard and come up with models that work.

In this post, I’ll look in depth at the Kurt Lewin change model and the insights for actionable change it offers.

Known as one of the modern pioneers in social, organizational and applied psychology, Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist (born in Poland in 1890), was a professor at the University of Berlin between 1926 and 1932 before moving to the United States in 1933.

Lewin worked as a professor in a number of US universities before eventually becoming director of the Center for Group Dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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Lewin’s model of change

In the 1940s, Lewin proposed a Change Management Model that was perhaps, the first and most famous early analysis of how organizations adapt and deal with change.

His model proposed three main stages to move an organization from its current state to a desired future state:  “Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze

  1. Unfreeze – Creating a sense a change is needed
  2. Change – Moving towards a new and desired behavior
  3. Refreeze – Setting this behavior as the new normal

It is lauded even by more modern organizational gurus such as Edgar Schein, who says:  “I am struck once again by the depth of Lewin’s insight and the seminal nature of his concepts and methods . . . [they] have deeply enriched our understanding of how change happens and what role change agents can and must play.” (Schein, 1996: 46)

Lewin’s theory of change used blocks of ice as a metaphor.

Let’s say you have ‘cube’ of ice but you’d like a ‘cone’ of ice.  To transform the cube shape you must:

  1. “unfreeze” or melt the ice
  2. “change” the mould to a cone shape and
  3. “refreeze” the water into the new, desired shape

lewins chnage model

It’s a simple three-stage process that allows you to easily diagnose which stage you are in.

As Lewin put it, “Motivation for change must be generated before change can occur. One must be helped to re-examine many cherished assumptions about oneself and one’s relations to others.”

Lewin identified several golden rules (1951) on how change is to be implemented:

  1. Change should only be implemented for good reason.
  2. Change should always be gradual.
  3. All change should be planned and not sporadic or sudden.
  4. All individuals who may be affected by the change should be involved in planning for the change.

Now, we’ll look at each of the three stages in more depth and see how these ‘golden rules’ apply.1x1 pixel

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Stage 1: Unfreeze

The ‘Unfreeze’ stage is about creating the motivation to change.

Motivation is intrinsic to an individual.

I cannot motivate you. You cannot motivate me. But I can create the conditions, messages, and environment that may influence you to want to change.

In this stage, Lewin asks us to examine the “way things are done around here” (assumptions) and challenge the status quo.

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Force-field analysis – Lewin (1951)

Lewin suggested a methodology for analyzing change he called the ‘force field analysis’.  Essentially, this involved the following:

  • analyze the restraining or driving forces that will affect the transition to the future state – restraining forces include the reactions from those who see change as ‘unnecessary’ or constituting a ‘threat’.
  • assess driving or restraining forces – which ones are critical?
  • take steps to increase the critical driving forces + decrease the critical restraining forces.

Source: Lewin, K (1951)  Field Theory in Social Science, Harper & Row, New York

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Stage 2: Change

The ‘Change’ stage has a focus on the solution – new ways of working. It begins with new approaches to problems. With new approaches comes new learning and it takes place here:

  • Goals are established.
  • Smaller, acceptable changes that reinforce and support change are instituted.
  • Management structures are developed.
  • Open, two-way communication (dialogue) is maintained.

This stage requires active stakeholder participation (particularly, with those impacted by the change).

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Stage 3: Refreeze

The ‘Refreeze’ stage calls for “institutionalizing” these new ways of acting and working.

New attitudes, values, and behaviors are established as the new status quo. Staff will begin to feel confident and comfortable in this new world.

Until the next cycle, that is.

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Why are these steps so important?

Let’s look at this scenario to explain why these three steps are so important.

Skip-a-step scenario

Let’s imagine you skip the ‘unfreezing’ phase and go straight to the ‘change’ phase.

What will happen?

The change will meet resistance.

Why?

Prevailing forces such as old values begin to increase to counter the change.  This leads to misunderstandings and a lack of trust (use the Force Field Analysis model to visualize this scenario)!

When you are making the actual change, important knowledge and/or internal acceptance may be lacking and suggestions ill-founded if you don’t:

  • base your decisions on a rigorous and systematic process (hunches yielding a ”good enough” outcome just won’t cut the mustard); and
  • involve all who are concerned by the change.

Criticisms

Overly simple?

The main criticism of Lewin’s change model is that it is quaint and too simple for the modern era of constant and rapid change.

The ‘Refreeze’ stage, in particular, implies a great deal of time is spent in the new status quo.

However, even in our current era of high speed and frequent change, we must have some degree of ‘refreeze’, otherwise we would “get caught in a transition trap where they aren’t sure how things should be done”.  As a result, we would not be able to perform at appreciable standards let alone best capacity.

Lewin’s model is often criticised as linear and without consideration for emotional life as people journey through change.

Where is leadership in all this?

Still, other critics claim Lewin’s model does not discuss leadership as a factor at all.

Perhaps, the mid-twentieth century world was more command-and-control and was less obvious was any talk of leadership. Indeed, leadership as research for organizational theorists didn’t begin until the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Western-centric?

A criticism of change management models, in general, is that organizational development and other such change approaches are typically western or US-centric models. Perhaps, these cannot be applied in the same way across all cultures.

Presumably, these models are not suited to the following situations:

Focuses on:  High rankings indicate:
 High Power Distance

A high degree of equality between people in a country’s society.

Inequalities of power and wealth have been allowed to grow within the society.

 High Uncertainty Avoidance

Tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity within a society.

A country has a low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity (people tend to be heavily driven by laws and rules).

 High Masculinity Cultures

The degree to which a society reinforces (or does not reinforce) the traditional masculine work role model of male achievement, control and power.

A country experiences a high degree of gender differentiation – “money before relationships”.

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In summary …

To summarise criticisms, many change management models that followed  Kurt Lewin’s model of change have their roots in and were inspired by his ideas.

Applying Lewin’s 3-Step Change Management Model

Exclusive blog bonus: Find out about my own change management model with my 30+ page FREE ebook, The Fundamentals Of Change Management

Step 1 – Unfreeze

Actions
  • Get clear and specific on …
  • what is to change
  • what is the goal
  • what desired behaviors are required in the future state
  • Get clear on …
  • why the change is necessary and why now
  • Conduct an organizational readiness assessment to …
  • determine the level of change maturity of the affected stakeholders. This helps you to understand the level of change effort and leadership support required to successfully carry out the change.

Step 2 – Change

Actions
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate (but don’t be ridiculous)
  • Communication is like glue – you need enough to hold things together but too much gums up the whole works!
  • Begin to communicate the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the change to affected stakeholders.
  • Collaborate for a change …
  • People don’t resist what they create  –  involve as many stakeholders and impacted parties as you can
  • For best results, ask for their input in a structured way
  • Manage resistance …
  • Rigorous implementation planning averts resistance – doing something new is ambiguous enough, so make sure you keep the journey as clear and organized as possible
  • Align leadership and involve every layer …
  • Leadership makes THE difference to successful change
  • By getting leaders aligned and demonstrating the desired behaviors, you can affect real change

Step 3 – Refreeze

Actions
  • “Refreeze” the organizational culture …
  • formal reward systems encourage the new behaviors
  • change reward systems
  • build success experiences
  • reward desired behavior
  • develop structures to institutionalize the change
  • force people to let go – we need to let go to reach out; we need to create the space so the new change can grow and become comfortable
  • Use these 3 techniques to encourage people to move with the momentum of change:
    • THE CUT OFF: At some stage, the old system needs to be switched off.
    • THE MOVE FORWARD: No longer accept work the old way.
    • THE INCENTIVE: Provide rewards for the desired behavior and celebrate early adopters.
  • Walk the talk …
  • Have leaders model the change you want to see

Finally, no matter what model you use and how diligent you follow the steps, change takes time. It can be ambiguous and mistakes happen.

You’ll need a lot of grit.

And the final word is – keep taking action with commitment and diligence. You’ll get there in the end!

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