My Favorite Change Models: Part 1 – Kurt Lewin’s 3-Step Change Model (Unfreezing the Organization)

This post will describe my personal experiences in using and referencing Kurt Lewin’s 3-Step Model during change engagements. Other models will be discussed in future posts.
 
So Who Is Kurt Lewin Anyway?
Kurt Lewin was a German Jew living in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. As you might imagine, Jews in Germany belonged to a socially disadvantaged group with no real hope of achieving any type of high-profile position. (As we all know, this only worsened as the Nazi party came to power.) This invisible barrier is probably one of the main reasons why Kurt Lewin focused his studies and research on the resolution of social conflict and the problems of minority or disadvantaged groups. Despite the odds, Kurt Lewin received his doctorate degree at the University of Berlin before moving to America shortly after Hitler came to power. Kurt Lewin is most famous for his work on Field Theory, Group Dynamics, Action Research and the 3-Step Change Model.

The 3-Step Model Explained
To summarize Kurt Lewin’s 3-Step Change Model, the organization is metaphorically transformed into a block of ice that can be unfrozen, changed and re-frozen after the desired change. You can view the video below for a quick summary of his model:

Here are some additional hints for applying the 3-Step Change Model.

Use Metaphors
I usually like to reference Kurt Lewin’s model at the beginning of (and during) a change initiative to help others visualize the change journey. Personally, I find that metaphors, such as the one used in Kurt Lewin’s model, are a really powerful way to explain the change journey to all employees impacted by the upcoming change. Although metaphors can be overly simplistic when compared to the actual change effort, it communicates a vivid imagery that everyone can understand quickly and gets the project moving in the right direction.

Anchor New Behaviors
I’ve found that one element in Kurt Lewin’s model that can be easily overlooked on projects (if you’re not careful) is the anchoring of the new behaviors within the organizational culture. This aspect is addressed in the last phase of Kurt Lewin’s model; the “freeze” or re-freeze phase where the change becomes part of the organization’s DNA. From my experience, gaining acceptance and buy-in for a planned change is better achieved by having your employees feel like they have been part of the change journey and included as part of the change effort early in the project.

Acknowledge The “Felt Need”
Using Kurt Lewin’s terminology, there needs to be a “felt need” for your employees to adopt and maintain new behaviors. Nobody likes to feel like change is being forced onto them – this only encourages employees to regress and hold firmly onto their old habits and behaviors. Identifying and involving all impacted stakeholders early in the project gives employees the time to acknowledge the “felt need”. Early involvement will also give employees the opportunity to express their anxieties and frustrations surrounding the change. In turn, this will enable the project team the time required to deal with reported frustrations prior to the termination of the project. I’ve seen some projects shy away from involving certain stakeholders early in the project in the fear of hearing too much negative feedback. Of course, this must be controlled but negative feedback isn’t all bad – it helps management review the change strategy and approach for possible re-calibration.

Criticism Towards The 3-Step Model
As with any model, Kurt Lewin’s 3-Step Model is not without criticism. I won’t go into the details, but will rather provide you with a link to a great article that evaluates and challenges the criticism towards this model. In summary, the author reports that most of the criticism is unfounded or based on a narrow interpretation of Kurt Lewin’s work. Here is the link to Bernard Burnes’s article: Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to Change: A Re-appraisal.

Of course, I always recommend applying more than one model or theory on any change engagement. The reason for this is best described by W. G. Perry Jr. – “To understand what’s going on, you need at least three theories”. I hope this post will help you with your next change initiatives.

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Don’t know how to involve executives into your change plan?

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Leading change in large organizations is hard. Having active and visible participation from competent, high-level executives definitely helps retain (and increase) employee engagement along the change journey. Some change initiatives are blessed with the CEO’s involvement from inception. These are the lucky projects (or unlucky depending on the CEO’s personality).

For the rest of us, especially in IT-related changes, executive leaders sometimes shy away and delegate their duties to more technically inclined individuals that are further down the organizational chart. This is fine and makes a lot of sense. Still, when this happens, I’ve seen plenty of missed opportunities to utilize the influence of executives to maintain and increase employee engagement for these projects. The involvement of an executive-level player can have an exponential ripple effect on employee engagement. And guess what? The less time they have to dedicate to your project, the better! I know this can be counter intuitive. But there is a perfectly good reason for this.

For some of you, this piece of knowledge may throw you back in your first year of college when learning about behavioural psychology. Some of you may remember B. F. Skinner and the term ‘intermittent reinforcement’. Does this ring a ‘pavlov’ bell? Do you even remember what the B. F. in B. F. Skinner stands for? (Answer at the bottom of the post).

Intermittent reinforcement is when rewards (or warnings) are handed out inconsistently and occasionally. It means that you don’t get a reward every time you accomplish a certain task. Rewards are given randomly. This technique encourages the subject to keep moving towards the change goals in the hopes of getting rewarded for their hard work at a random point in the future.

One of the best (and simplest) examples of how intermittent reinforcement works is the slot machine. Slot machines are programmed to pay out random winnings to keep the player’s interest. If the payout was predictable, the gambler would quickly get bored and walk away. What keeps them feeding the machine are the small intermittent payouts and the dream of winning the big jackpot. With intermittent reinforcement, most gamblers will feed the small and medium-sized winnings straight back into the machine and keep playing. The slot machine utilizes intermittent reinforcement rules to motivate people to keep playing.

So how can we integrate intermittent reinforcement in an organizational setting for successful implementation of change?

Step 1 – Identify the senior executives that are directly/ indirectly impacted by the change initiative. Don’t be scared to ‘go big’ on this exercise. Go ahead and brainstorm the names on a piece of paper. Forget about all of your psychological roadblocks that prevents you from working with the right executives. They are just people too.

Step 2 – Prepare your speech/ presentation on the power of intermittent reinforcement and identify activities/ events related to intermittent reinforcements. Here are some examples:

  • High-level executive handing out t-shirts with project logo to congratulate continued focus on the change initiative
  • High-level executive handing out gift cards
  • High-level executive congratulating 1 or 2 employees for exhibiting the right behaviours towards the change
  • Step 3 – Educate the project leaders on the power of intermittent reinforcement and the non-intuitive notion of the ‘less time the better’ mentality. Gain their approval.

    Step 4 – Approach the senior executives who have been pegged for intermittent reinforcement. Educate them on the power of intermittent reinforcement and show them their involvement requirements and related activities. Gain their approval.

    Explain to them how a minimal amount of time will have exponential ripple effect on employee engagement. Also, explain to them the impact of not having their time – a lost opportunity to mainain and increase employee engagement.

    Step 5 – Hit the ground running. Wait for accolades and accept them with humility.

    Step 6 – Adjust as required

    A word on steering/ working committees
    I want to be clear that steering/ working committee meetings are not a good medium to exercise intermittent reinforcement. Although an important part of any project, these types of meetings are too consistent over time. It would be contradictory to apply an inconsistent/ occasional reinforcement technique in a meeting that is consistent over time. The intermittent reinforcement technique can be better utilized by creating original meetings/ events. This will create a unique experience and stand out above the rest of the regular meetings associated with the change initiative.

    In summary
    With the concept of intermittent reinforcement, executives can reward (or warn) employees at different intervals to keep the desired behaviours going. As dictated by the intermittent reinforcement concept, inconsistent and occasional occurrences of these types of meetings will retain (or increase) employee engagement.

    I can’t imagine any executives not wanting to adopt the intermittent reinforcement technique. Do you know of an executive that would want to dedicate more time on a project as oppose to less?

    Answer: B. F. in B. F. Skinner stand for Burrhus Frederic.

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    Understanding Personality Types During Times of Change

    Have you ever noticed how some early adopters of change turnout to resist change during the reinforcement and stabilization periods? Similarly, it often seems that some people who initially oppose a change later become its greatest supporters. Understanding personality types during times of change can help explain these behaviours. It will also provide you with the knowledge to make people work with the change, not against it.

    For the sake of this example, I’ll be reducing the plethora of personality types at work into two types placed on a continuum. On one end of the continuum lies the type that jumps at the first opportunity to try something new. On the other end of the continuum lies the person that prefers to stick to a daily routine.

    I just want to mention here that there are many other factors that lead to resistance to change that are not mentioned in this post (such as the age of an employee). This will be discussed in future posts (hopefully).

    There is probably no better example of a person that is of the ‘change’ type than myself. I always prefer project work over routine work. I’m always the person wanting to try new stuff out. And when it comes time to anchor and stabilize the new into a daily routine, I find myself having to focus a little more time than others. From personal experience, it is helpful for me to be surrounded by employees who prefer the more routine-side of the business to keep me from jumping to the next big thing before it is time.

    So who are these ‘routine’ types anyway? I think almost everyone has met or worked with an employee that prefers a daily routine over a change (or you may be one of them). For the sake of anonymity, I will call a previous colleague of mine ‘Dave’. I met Dave on a large ERP-replacement project. Because of Dave’s passion for flawless execution and efficiency with the existing way of doing business, Dave would always be one of the first people to really scrutinize the upcoming changes and assess its validity. He would usually get a head start on examining every little piece of work the change might impact. Dave loves being efficient at what he does – it’s part of his DNA. So to introduce a change that will disrupt his efficiency goes against his work philosophy.

    Here’s the catch though. Once Dave got used to the new application and was able to regain efficiency at his job, Dave could not stop talking positively about the changes and encouraged everyone to jump on the change bandwagon.

    Both personality types, the ‘change’ type and the ‘routine’ type, pose opportunities and challenges during the change cycle. On one hand, the ‘movers and shakers’ can be targeted to help propagate change in an organization in the beginning stages of the project. Similarly, the employees that prefer routine work can be used to help anchor and stabilize the new behaviours once the new processes and measurements are in place. Utilizing the right people (personality types) at the right time helps smooth out the bumps along the change journey.

    In terms of identifying and categorizing these individuals between the ‘change’ type and the ‘routine’ type, this can be done organically. If you have been working for the same company for many years, you will have a good understanding of who fits into these categories. If you are new to an organization, no sweat. As the change initiative gains momentum, the employees involved in the change initiative will start showing their true colors and, at this point, you will have a better sense of which category each person belongs to. Once you have the employees pegged, you will be able to assign leading activities to the right individuals at the right stage of the initiative.

    For example, the ‘change’ types can play a more active role at the beginning of the change initiative. Similarly, the ‘routine’ types can play a more active role closer to the end of the change initiative when the ironed-out processes and expected behaviours need to be locked-down.

    In a sense, people who prefer change and the people who prefer routine are each others ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ during times of transition. They need each other to help make the change successful. Understanding and embracing both types will help reduce or eliminate the challenges along the change journey.

    Culture In The Workplace – How Is It Shaped?

    Have you ever asked yourself how the work culture of an organization is created and shaped? For example, why does one company encourage a “by the book” culture while a competitor in the same industry encourages a culture that thrives on collaboration and creativity?

    This post will describe how work culture is created and developed in an organizational setting.  Once understood, you can better assess the impact your change initiative might have on your organization.

    Work culture is formed by:
    1) the unique business philosophies of the founder(s) of the company,
    2) the unique set of challenges presented along the way, and
    3) the unique set of solutions implemented to overcome these challenges

    You can view the video below for a quick summary of these factors:

    Changing The Work Culture – How Hard Can It Be?
    Edgar Schein is my favorite author on the subject of organizational culture. Schein explains that organizational culture is the most difficult organizational attribute to change – outlasting organizational products, services, founders and leadership and all other physical attributes of the organization.

    Schein describes organizational culture as follows:
    “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (source: Organizational Culture and Leadership).

    In a sense, the work culture dictates how an employee within the company should behave in order to accomplish a goal. Any deviation from the accepted way to accomplish a goal will receive resistance. A frequent outcome for an individual going against the grain will be ostracization from the group – even if they were able to accomplish the set goal.

    A Practical Way To Dissect Organizational Culture
    Edgar Schein explains that organizational culture can be understood at three levels: artifacts, espoused values and tacit assumptions.

    1. Artifacts
    An artifact refers to the visible organizational objects, structures and processes. One source of artifact is the physical layout of the office space in an organization. Employees with a superior status (i.e. executives) are entitled to a private office while the rest of the employees are placed in open cubicles. In this case, organizational authority is made visible through seating privileges.

    2. Espoused Values
    An espoused value can be a past solution that has been transformed into a concrete assumption, such as a consulting firm’s methodology for large-systems implementations. These values are also communicated via the company’s mission statement, philosophies, goals and strategies.

    3. Tacit Assumptions
    Tacit assumptions are cryptic and sometimes contradicting to what is said in public.  They are found at the deepest level of the organization. It is the hardest aspect of the culture to decipher for newcomers and outsiders. For example, a company may tout that they possess a great work/life balance in their organization; however, this may not apply in the face of looming client deadlines.  Many newcomers to an organization learn about these types of tacit assumptions by trial and error, which may lead to certain ‘rookie’ mistakes.

    Understanding the artifacts, espoused values and tacit assumptions of an organization will enable you to better gauge the organizational impact for planned change. A change initiative impacting the tacit assumptions of an organization will be much more difficult to implement than a change that only affects organizational artifacts.  But then again, you may not realize that a change impacts tacit assumptions until you start the change process. Tread carefully.

    How Is This Useful?
    So far, I’ve simply explained the elements that shape organizational culture. I haven’t proposed or recommended any strategies for changing an existing culture for a specific purpose.  (This will be addressed in a separate post.)

    In this post, I wanted only to make evident the power that the founding leaders have in shaping organizational culture during the initial expansion of the organization. As the organization grows, the work culture is further developed by all those involved with addressing organizational challenges that present themselves along the way.  As discussed, the solutions to these challenges (i.e. specific methodology, appropriate behavior, a chosen group or person to address the problem) transform into concrete assumptions with regard to how things get done within an organization.

    Gaining a deep understanding of a company’s history and the challenges it has overcome will give you a better sense of why the current leaders, managers and employees behave the way they do on a day-to-day basis. Equipped with this knowledge, you can look at your change initiative through a “work culture” lens and thereby assess the impact the change will have on the way things get done in your organization.  This will undoubtedly up the complexity of your project, but it will provide you with invaluable insight.  This is where it gets interesting.

    The Best Time to Learn and Change?

    Have you ever noticed how much more motivated you are to learn when you are faced with a crisis? Some of my best learning experiences have been during times when I was pushed outside of my boundaries and unable to rely on my past experiences for rescue.

    With age and an accruing number of life experiences, I’ve come to embrace periods of instability simply because I know that new learnings will come out of this experience.

    As an example, I encounter periods of instability at the end of every work contract. Stress and anxiety begin to build as bills keep pouring into my mailbox with no apparent source of income to pay them. These feelings increase exponentially as I watch my kids frolicking in the living room. (For the parents reading this post, it’s all about the kids, isn’t it?). The silver lining in this situation, from my perspective, is that these pressures make me behave and think differently. I start thinking out of the box in order to find my next opportunity. I begin reaching out to people I otherwise would not have contacted. Then something wonderful happens, things start moving. I find myself accessing different market spaces for my skills and ultimately landing another work opportunity in an area of interest. One of the greatest outcomes of this process is that I continue learning about myself. I discover that some of the boundaries I had were self-imposed and that there are fewer boundaries than originally perceived.

    My advice to anyone reading this post is to never let a period of instability go to waste. It’s a period of time when you can discover new ways of doing things and shape your behaviour into something that makes you better.

    What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – Friedrich Nietzsche

    So go ahead, embrace your next challenge.

    Identify your impacted stakeholders early… and refine throughout the change journey

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    This is the fourth post in my series/ journey to build a software application to serve organizations, groups and individuals on large change initiativess. You can read my first 3 posts here:
    1. Intro to ChangeMachineTM
    2. Digitizing the change management workflow
    3. Are your change objectives S.M.A.R.T.?

    This post focuses on identifying impacted stakeholders early and refining your analysis along the change journey.

    Don’t you hate it when you are scrambling at the last minute to get “forgotten” stakeholders to adopt your new solution? Educating these forgotten stakeholders on decisions that have been made without them can be tedious at best and unsuccessful at worst. Identifying all impacted stakeholders early, however, is not as easy as it seems. As the solution pervades an organization, new stakeholders will emerge and need to be incorporated into the change plan. This is why stakeholder analysis should be done at the beginning of a project and continuously reviewed to incorporate these new or forgotten stakeholders. Think of stakeholder analysis as an ongoing and evolving process that begins early in the initiative and is further refined as momentum and early project milestones are achieved. This train of thought will preserve your sanity.

    At the beginning of an initiative, I make an early attempt to identify employees that are impacted by an upcoming change. I do this by recreating the organizational chart on an 11×17 sheet of paper and highlighting all impacted departments right down to the individuals. I also attach a few comments to each of the impacted groups, describing and summarizing the intensity of the change per group. Dissecting each of the stakeholder groups can be done by working through the following elements:
    1) How will the change impact each of the specific stakeholder groups?
    2) How will the stakeholders benefit from the change?
    3) What are the required contributions to reach the target benefits?
    4) What are the KPIs/ measurements that are relevant for each of the stakeholder groups?
    **Continue performing this exercise as new stakeholders are uncovered.

    Equipped with this data, you have enough information to begin moving each of the stakeholder groups through general change management milestones:
    Milestone 1: stakeholders are aware of the upcoming change
    Milestone 2: stakeholders understand what is changing and how they are going to change
    Milestone 3: stakeholders have acquired new capabilities to work with new solution
    Milestone 4: new behaviors are stabilized (no regression)

    I’ve been able to digitize the stakeholder analysis process in my ChangeMachineTM application. This helps me hit the ground running when conducting an impacted-stakeholder-analysis exercise. Check out my video below for a quick tutorial:

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    Additional posts/videos of the ChangeMachineTM
    1. Intro to ChangeMachineTM
    2. Digitizing the change management workflow
    3. Are your change objectives S.M.A.R.T.?
    4. Identify your impacted stakeholders early…

    Click here to have new articles sent straight to your inbox.

    Are your change objectives S.M.A.R.T.?

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    Has your change initiative lost steam? Do you find that you’re constantly spinning your wheels or going around in circles? Many factors contribute to these frustrations. One of these factors could be the quality of your change objectives that were developed (or should have been developed) at the beginning of your initiative.

    I like to develop change objectives using the S.M.A.R.T. acronym; specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-related. (You can scour the internet to find out more about this simple and efficient acronym). Here is an example of a S.M.A.R.T. objective:

    Sell 1000 units of product A by December 31, 2014

  • Setting up S.M.A.R.T. objectives will help get everyone on the same page.
  • S.M.A.R.T. objectives will provide enough detail to make the project team and change leaders contemplate the types of resources, activities and requirements needed to meet these objectives. It’s a segway to identifying the impacted stakeholders and seeing who needs to participate in the initiative to completion.
  • S.M.A.R.T. objectives, with the time-related aspect included, will add enough pressure to get people thinking about the critical path and highlight elements that may be in jeopardy due to perceived contraints. These constraints can then be worked-out or brought up the chain of command for resolution.
  • I’ve seen, and still continue to see, many change initiatives move forward with the absence of clear change objectives. This leaves the initiative exposed to misinterpretations, misalignment and confusion. The absence of clear change objectives make it harder to gauge and monitor the progress of your change initiative.

    I think that many people steer away from documenting objectives using the S.M.A.R.T. acronym for the fear of failing to meet the expectations they were meant to achieve, such as missing the time-related component of a S.M.A.R.T. objective. Some companies view missed deadlines as grounds for dismissal – if this is the case, it may make sense to exclude the time-related component. All I am saying is that the clearer you can be in communicating what the initiative sets out to do, the better off you will be.

    Check out my video to see how I’ve incorporated S.M.A.R.T. objectives into my ChangeMachine application:

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    This was the third post in my series/ journey to build a software application to serve organizations, groups and individuals on large change initiativess. Below are the other posts/videos related to the ChangeMachineTM
    1. Intro to ChangeMachineTM
    2. Digitizing the change management workflow
    3. Are your change objectives S.M.A.R.T.?
    4. Identify your impacted stakeholders early…

    Click here to have new articles sent straight to your inbox.

    Digitizing the change management workflow

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    This is my second post in this series. You can navigate to my initial post here for an introduction to the ChangeMachineTM application.

    As mentioned in my first post, I am interested in digitizing organizational change management theories and practices. This video describes a pragmatic workflow that presents the necessary steps to start your change initiative on the right path.

    I must say that digitizing a change workflow was an interesting journey. With so many experiences and theories about change floating inside my head, it wasn’t easy to strip away the “nice to haves” of managing change and hone in on the essential steps to getting your change initiative moving in the right direction. To avoid deviations from the original purpose of your change initiative, it is essential to link your strategy/approach, activities and tasks back to the change objectives that were set at the beginning of your project. I’ve seen a lot of people, myself included, lose focus of the objectives by getting lost in change theories and practices that fail to link back to change objectives.

    Want to know more? Check out my video:

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    Additional posts/videos of the ChangeMachineTM
    1. Intro to ChangeMachineTM
    2. Digitizing the change management workflow
    3. Are your change objectives S.M.A.R.T.?
    4. Identify your impacted stakeholders early…

    Click here to have new articles sent straight to your inbox.

    Intro to ChangeMachineTM

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    One of my goals with this blog was to build, from scratch, an organizational change management approach based on my education and experience. Mission accomplished. (Click here for my blog-post on this milestone and for my downloadable ebook). what I liked about this journey was posting my progress online for the world to see. This kept me honest as I really had nowhere to hide.

    I’d like to embark on another journey following the same formula. This time, I plan to build a software application to serve organizations, groups and individuals on large change initiatives. Similar to my previous journey, I will be posting short videos showcasing the features of my application as I build them. I’m looking forward to seeing how I can incorporate change management theories and practices into an application.

    I invite you to join me on my next journey.

    Here is my first video showcasing an early version of my change management application:
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    Additional posts/videos of the ChangeMachineTM
    1. Intro to ChangeMachine
    2. Digitizing the change management workflow
    3. Are your change objectives S.M.A.R.T.?
    4. Identify your impacted stakeholders early…

    Click here to have new articles sent straight to your inbox.