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Lewin’s Change Theory: Why it Matters For Organizational Change

Time for Change

The behavior of change (how people accept, embrace, and perform it) is the core component of modern organizational change management. Kurt Lewin’s Model of Change was the first widely recognized model of change management.

While it was initially extremely popular, current service management thinking criticizes the model for being too abstract and simplistic to make a fundamental change in today’s organizations since the corporate landscape is so complex and dynamic. But, the three-step model of change still has its place today, and it provides some real, actionable guidance.

Related: Business and Culture Transformation

What Is Lewin’s Change Model?

Kurt Lewin, a leader in change management, was a German-American social psychologist who practiced in the early 20th century. Lewin was one of the first people to research organizational development and group dynamics, and he developed his three-stage model to evaluate two areas:

  • The change process of corporate environments
  • How the status-quo affects organizational changes

He proposed that the behavior of an individual in response to changes is a function of group behavior. Interactions and forces affecting the group structure jeopardize the individual’s behavior and capacity to change. Because of this, the group environment must be a consideration in the organizational change process.

Lewin’s three-stage model describes the status-quo as the present situation, but the process to implement a proposed change should continue to evolve. To understand group and individual behavior, we must evaluate the entire organizational environment, known as field theory, which is used to develop most change models, including this one.

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The Three Stages of Change

Let’s look at the three stages of Lewin’s model and how it describes the nature of change, how to implement it, and common challenges that accompany it.

1. Unfreeze

During the first stage, Lewin identifies human behavior (as it pertains to change) as a “quasi-stationary equilibrium state.” You can think of this state as a mindset, a physical and mental capacity that can almost get reached, but it initially sits where the mind can evolve without attaining that capacity.

Lewin also argues that change follows resistance, and the group forces prevent individual people from embracing the change. Because of this, it’s necessary to agitate that equilibrium state to instigate a behavior pattern more open to change. He suggests an emotional stir-up might cause a disturbance to the group dynamics and force a feeling of self-righteousness among individual members. But, there are a variety of other ways to shake up the current status quo, and you’ll need to consider whether or not an individual, group, or company-wide change is a necessary adjustment.

Actions in the first “unfreeze” stage can include things like:

  • Determining what aspects need to change. You can do this by surveying your company to gain a better understanding of why (and if) changes are necessary.
  • Ensuring support from the C-suite and management. To achieve support, you’ll want to enlist the help of stakeholders and frame your issue in a way that will create a positive impact company-wide.
  • Creating a need for change. You can create this need by marketing a compelling message stating why change is a good thing and communicate about the change using a long-term vision.
Plan A, B, and C

Related: Business Teams 101

2. Change

Once the status-quo has been “unfrozen,” it’s time to start implementing the changes. Organizational change is known for being complex, so executing a planned-out change might not have the results you predicted. Therefore, it’s essential to prepare various change options, from planned change processes to trial-and-error ones. With each change attempt, it’s necessary to look at what worked, what didn’t, and which parts of the process were resistant to change.

There are two important drivers of a successful and effective organizational change process. These are:

  • Information flow, which refers to sharing information at multiple levels of the company’s hierarchy to make a variety of expertise and skills available and coordinate problem-solving company-wide.
  • Leadership which you can define as the influence that certain people have in the group to achieve a common goal. Well-planned organizational change processes require a defined vision and motivation from the leadership.

An iterative approach is also a necessity when it comes to sustaining changes. According to Lewin, changes left without reinforcement are likely to be short-lived and, therefore, will fail to meet the organization’s objectives.

In this stage, companies should:

  • Communicate clearly throughout the organization about the planned changes, their benefits, and who will get affected. Answer any questions the people involved may have and clarify any misunderstandings.
  • Empower and promote actions that inspire change. Encourage your employees to get involved with the changes, and support your managers by providing daily and weekly direction.
  • Involve everyone as much as you can. Small, easy wins can turn into larger ones quickly, and working with a larger number of people can help you with your stakeholders.

3. Refreeze

The final step is about sustaining the changes you implemented. The goal for everyone involved is to consider this as the new status quo so that they no longer resist the forces of change. Without taking appropriate steps to sustain and reinforce the new changes, the previous behaviors tend to reassert themselves. Organizations should consider implementing both formal and informal mechanisms to implement and “freeze” new changes. Taking those steps to counter the effects of resistance to the changes can help them become the new normal over time.

During the refreeze phase, companies should:

  • Tie new changes into the company culture by identifying the change supports and barriers.
  • Promote and develop practices to sustain the changes over the long term, like:
    • Ensuring that leadership and management get support from stakeholders and employees.
    • Establishing processes for people to give their feedback.
    • Offer training and support for both the short and long-term, and promote both informal and formal methods for sustaining the changes.
Time for Change

Related: Are Old Habits Holding Back Your Organization?

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