By Mark Connelly Updated: 12 September 2020
Kurt Lewin's Force Field Analysis is a powerful strategic tool used to understand what's needed for change in both corporate and personal environments.
Best of all - it's easy to use and has complete credibility as a professional tool.
We'll use a little basic science to introduce the concept, after which you'll find enough information to allow you to unleash your knowledge of force fields on colleagues!
To help you out I've created a tool that you can use to practically apply a Force Field Analysis. Download the free Application Tool when you're ready. You'll need Adobe Reader to open the file.
Let's start with a simple science experiment (this really is relevant, so stay with me for a moment please).
You'll need to sit down for this one. You're sitting? Good. Now, what's keeping you in the chair?
Well, there are two answers really. One is gravity which is pushing you down into the chair. A driving force, if you like.
The other is the chair itself, which provides an opposing force, pushing up against gravity, and stopping you falling to the ground.
So it would seem that while you are sitting you're in an equilibrium of sorts.
Two forces keep you there. Gravity pushes down, keeping you in the chair, and the chair resists this, stopping you from falling to the ground.
Two equal forces, a driving force and a resisting or restraining force, working to keep the equilibrium or status quo.
Agreed? Okay, now let's play. Let's say we want to move away from this equilibrium and get you to fall to the floor. What could we do?
Well, on the one hand we could increase the amount of gravity (our driving force). The chair will give way eventually and you will fall.
On the other hand, we could leave gravity alone and decide to weaken the chair (our restraining force) to get the same result.
If you've followed me this far then you've just completed a force field analysis and understood the basic concepts of the model. It also helps to explain why our science experiment is relevant.
You see, Kurt Lewin applied exactly this thinking to his theory of change within social situations - to people.
Kurt Lewin views culture as being in a state of equilibrium.
He writes: "A culture is not a painted picture; it is a living process, composed of countless social interactions. Like a river whose form and velocity are determined by the balance of those forces that tend to make the water flow faster, and the friction that tends to make the water flow more slowly the cultural pattern of a people at a given time is maintained by a balance of counteracting forces." (Lewin, K. 1948. Resolving Social Conflicts, p.46.)
"To bring about any change, the balance between the forces which maintain the social self-regulation at a given level has to be upset" (Lewin, K. 1948. Resolving Social Conflicts, p.47.)
This describes the experiment we just did and is summarised in the diagram below.
So before change the force field is in equilibrium between forces favourable to change and those resisting it. Lewin spoke about the existence of a quasi-stationary social equilibrium.
For change to happen the status quo, or equilibrium must be upset – either by adding conditions favourable to the change or by reducing resisting forces.
What Kurt Lewin proposes is that whenever driving forces are stronger than restraining forces, the status quo or equilibrium will change.
Now that's useful. Especially if we apply this to understanding how people move through change and why they resist change.
There will always be driving forces that make change attractive to people, and restraining forces that work to keep things as they are.
Successful change is achieved by either strengthening the driving forces or weakening the restraining forces.
The force field analysis integrates with Lewin’s three stage theory of change as you work towards unfreezing the existing equilibrium, moving towards the desired change, and then freezing the change at the new level so that a new equilibrum exists that resists further change.
Lewin's force field analysis is used to distinguish which factors within a situation or organisation drive a person towards or away from a desired state, and which oppose the driving forces.
These can be analysed in order to inform decisions that will make change more acceptable.
'Forces' are more than attitudes to change. Kurt Lewin was aware that there is a lot of emotion underlying people's attitude to change.
To understand what makes people resist or accept change we need to understand the values and experiences of that person or group.
Developing self awareness and emotional intelligence can help to understand these forces that work within us and others. It’s the behaviour of others that will alert you to the presence of driving and restraining forces at work.
PS: You might find it useful to follow the process using the Force Field Analysis Application Tool available here, free of charge of course! You'll need Adobe Reader to open the application tool.
Criticism of the force field analysis usually focuses on the subjectivity of attributing scores to the driving or restraining forces.
Some writers suggest the model applies within limited settings and that there are situations outside of these settings in which Lewin’s theory may be less applicable.
At the end of the day this model of analysis is a tool that may or may not be useful in your situation. You can decide this or allow others to make a decision.
The force field analysis is backed by the Lewin change management model and has, over time, developed credibility as a professional change management tool.
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