Kurt Lewin emigrated from Germany to America during the 1930's and is recognised as the "founder of social psychology" which highlights his interest in the human aspect of change.
Lewin's interest in groups led to research focusing on factors that influence people to change, and the three stages needed to make change successful.
Lewin's three stage theory of change is commonly referred to as Unfreeze, Change, Freeze (or Refreeze). It is possible to take these stages to quite complicated levels but I don't believe this is necessary to be able to work with the theory. But be aware that the theory has been criticised for being simplistic.
Although this three step model is most associated with Lewin's change theory Cummings, et al (2016) suggest that Kurt Lewin did not actually develop a change model based on these three steps. They argue that the Unfreeze - Change - Freeze model only emerged after Lewin's death in 1947. Cummings, S., Bridgman, T., & Brown, K. G. (2016). Unfreezing change as three steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s legacy for change management. Human Relations, 69(1), 33–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726715577707
This does not reduce the significance of Lewin's change theory but does indicate that there is much more to the Lewin change theory than a simplistic three step model.
The world may have changed since the theory emerged. However, the Kurt Lewin change model has become a foundation of modern change management and remains extremely relevant. If you look carefully enough you may notice many modern change models appear to be based on Lewin's change model.
I'm going to head down a middle road and
give you just enough information about Lewin's three step model to make you dangerous...and perhaps a
little more to whet your appetite!
So, three stages. Unfreezing, Change, Freezing. Let's look at each of these.
Kurt Lewin believed that cultural groups, like organizations, are in a state of balance. He called this a quasi-stationary equilibrium. Lewin spoke about driving and restraining forces that support this balance. Read a detailed explanation here.
Before we can change our old behaviors and adopt new ones, this equilibrium needs to be disrupted or "unfrozen".
Unfreezing involves creating awareness of the need for change and creating a sense of urgency. It's also essential to make sure that people feel supported during the change.
This stage is about getting ready to change. It involves getting to a point of understanding that change is necessary. It's also about preparing to move away from our current comfort zone.
This first stage is about preparing ourselves, and others, for change.
Kurt Lewin was aware that change is not an event, but rather a process. He called that process a transition.
Transition is the inner movement or journey we make in reaction to a change. This second stage occurs as we make the changes that are needed.
People are 'unfrozen' and moving towards a new way of being.
That said this stage is often the hardest as people are unsure or even fearful. Imagine bungey jumping or parachuting. You may have convinced yourself that there is a great benefit for you to make the jump, but now you find yourself on the edge looking down. Scary stuff! But when you do it you may learn a lot about yourself.
This is not an easy time as people are learning about the changes and need to be given time to understand and work with them. Transition is a process that occurs within each of us. There's no set time limit as each of us is different.
Support is really important here and can be in the form of training, coaching, and expecting mistakes as part of the process.
Using role models and allowing people to develop their own solutions will help the change process. It's really useful to keep communicating a clear picture of the desired change - and the benefits - so people don't lose sight of where they are heading.
Kurt Lewin refers to this stage as freezing although a lot of people refer to it as 'refreezing'. As the name suggests this stage is about establishing stability once the changes have been made. The changes are accepted and become the new norm. People form new relationships and become comfortable with their routines. This can take time.
It's often at this point that people laugh and tell me that practically there is never time for this 'freezing' stage. And it's just this that's drawn criticism to the Kurt Lewin model.
In today's world of change the next new change could happen in weeks or less. There is just no time to settle into comfortable routines. The rigidity of freezing does not fit with current thinking about change being a continuous, sometimes chaotic process in which great flexibility is demanded.
Popular thought has moved away from the concept of freezing. Instead, we're urged to think about this final stage as being more flexible, maybe like a milkshake or soft serve ice cream, rather than a rigid frozen block. This way 'Unfreezing' for the next change might be easier.
Given today's pace of change this is a reasonable criticism. But it might help to get in touch with what Kurt Lewin was actually saying. In 1947 he wrote:
Lewin's concern is about 'permanency' - reinforcing the change and ensuring that the desired change is sustained into the future. Without this people tend to go back to doing what they are used to doing. This is most likely what Kurt Lewin meant when he used the term 'freezing' - supporting the desired change to make sure it continues and is not lost.
Modern models of change, such as the ADKAR® model, are more explicit about this step and include Reinforcement as one of their phases. I've also read this final step of freezing referred to as the lock-in effect. Establishing stability only happens when the new changes are locked-in.
Thinking about change as a journey might make you think that a journey has a beginning , middle, and an end. While this is useful when thinking about the process of change the reality is that this journey doesn't have an end. Lots of rest stops maybe! Some opportunities for settling down for a while. But no end. So be careful about thinking that a change process has a definite end, as the Lewin change management model might seem to suggest.
In what ways do you think this model might be useful for you?
I've found the Kurt Lewin model useful to frame a process of change for people that is quite easy to understand. Of course each stage can be expanded to aid better understanding of the process. Applying the concepts of Unfreezing, and especially the Kurt Lewin Force Field Analysis, at a personal level can give us insight and help us better understand how we deal with change.
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