12 Apr Kurt Lewin’s Three Step Change Model
Kurt Lewin is one of the earliest change thinkers that is still referred to today and his ‘Three Step Change Model’ laid the foundations for modern day change theory. In fact, John Kotter’s 8-step change model, one of the most famous change management models, is largely based on Lewin’s simple model. It is useful to understand this simple model, as it has laid the foundations for many models since and starting from this point will give you the best chance of grasping more complicated models. Having said that, its practical use in modern business is questionable, mostly due to the complex nature of organisations.
The model was first proposed in Lewin’s 1947 paper, “Frontier in Group Dynamics”. The paper assessed the behaviour of different groups and how their behaviours affected the overall change process and performance. His main conclusion was that successful change is achieved through a three-step process; unfreezing, changing and freezing. Below, we have examined the importance of each step and how it leads on to the next:
It is well known that individuals naturally resist change, as they prefer processes and strategies that they know to those that they do not. Lewin argues that to overcome this, individuals must be encouraged to examine current processes with a critical eye and be open to the possibility that a new process may produce a better outcome. The author explains that this process is not easy, but reaching out to your employees’ emotional side will give you the best chance of success, “To break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir-up.” This is a key leadership skill, as breaking down the status quo and pushing individuals out of their comfort zone is likely to lead to the acquisition of new skills, continuous improvement of processes and, ultimately, better organisational performance. The author suggests using ‘Force Field Analysis’ to determine whether a change is appropriate, weighing up the positives against the negatives of a likely change.
Once individuals have accepted current processes could be improved and there are potential solutions to the problems, the next step is to implement the change. This process may be complicated and chaotic and costs may be incurred, so a long-term view is essential for maintaining confidence and morale. This stage provides the best opportunity for skill development and gaining experience, but also requires a great amount of support and training. Communication and leadership are essential for ensuring the change process occurs effectively and no one is left behind.
The author defines the final ‘freezing’ stage to be the most crucial in the overall process, as often a change will only last a small amount of time before switching back to its original state. For that reason, it is essential that the change is properly reinforced and sustained. This may incur more costs and prolong the change process even further, but it is important that the resources that went into initiating the change are not wasted. It is common that a major change initiative takes place and individuals change the way they work, only to slip back into old habits as the push for the change is relaxed. A common criticism of this model is that resources and time for this stage are often limited as its importance is underestimated. Therefore, it is common that this stage doesn’t take place in reality. It is also said this ‘freezing’ after the change takes place runs the risk of the organisation being inflexible when the next change is needed, which in fast-evolving modern business environments can be very soon after.
Lewin’s main finding from his study was that too often the individuals involved in the change process are neglected and this was causing many change initiatives to fail. His solution for this was to emphasise the importance of preparing individuals for change (unfreezing) and reinforcing the need for change (freezing) long after the initiative has ended. This guarantees that individuals initially understand the need for change and resist the temptation to slip back into their old habits. The model is certainly not perfect and a more flexible version is probably more appropriate to 21st century organisations, but it sets the foundations for how any change initiative should be carried out.
Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method and Reality in Social Science; Social Equilibria and Social Change. Human Relations 1.1 (1947): 5-41. Web.
Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics: II. Channels of Group Life; Social Planning and Action Research. Human Relations 1.2 (1947): 143-153. Web.