Unfreeze them to change them

One of my favourite change models is Kurt Lewin’s three step change model. This video from ‘Pears’ explains it very well.

Lewin considered that, to achieve change effectively, it is necessary to look at all the options for moving from the existing present to a desired future state, and then to evaluate the possibilities of each and decide on the best one, rather than just aiming for the desired goal and taking the straightest and easiest route to it.

Lewin’s model encourages managers to be aware of two kinds of forces of resistance deriving, firstly, from ‘social habit’ or ‘custom’; and, secondly, from the creation of an ‘inner resistance’ to change.

The two different kinds of forces of resistance are rooted in the interplay between a group as a whole and the individuals within it, and only driving forces that are strong enough to break the habits, challenge the interests or ‘unfreeze’ the customs of the group will overcome the forces of resistance. As most members will want to stay within the behavioural norms of the group, individual resistance to change will increase as a person is induced to move further away from current group values.

In Lewin’s view, this type of resistance can be lowered either by reducing the value the group attaches to something, or by fundamentally changing what the group values. He considered a complex, stepped process of unfreezing, changing and refreezing beliefs, attitudes and values to be required to achieve change, with the initial phase of unfreezing normally involving groups discussions in which individuals experience others’ views, and begin to adapt their own.

Since Lewin’s death, ‘Unfreeze-change-refreeze’ has sometimes been applied more rigidly than he intended, for example through discarding an old structure, setting up a new one, and then ‘fixing’ this into place. Such an inflexible course of action fits badly with more modern perspectives on change as a continuous and flowing process of evolution, and Lewin’s change model is now often criticised for its linearity, especially from the perspective of more recent research on nonlinear, ‘chaotic’ systems and complexity theory. The model was, however, process-oriented originally, and Lewin himself viewed change as a continuing process, recognising that extremely complex forces are at work in group and organisational dynamics.


The Man Behind the Idea

Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) was a social psychologist whose extensive work covered studies of leadership styles and their effects, work on group decision-making, the development of force field theory, the unfreeze/change/refreeze change management model, the ‘action research’ approach to research, and the group dynamics approach to training, (especially in the form of T Groups). Lewin has had a great influence on research and thinking on organisational development, and was behind the founding of the Center for Group Dynamics in the United States, through which many famous management thinkers passed.



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