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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