Kurt Lewin’s Background
Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) was a German born American social psychologist. He was known for his field theory of behaviour, which holds that human behaviour is a function of an individual’s physiological environment. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)[i]
on in his career he went on to study applying his theories to group dynamics,
this led to his publication “frontiers in group dynamics” Lewin (1947). From
this publication the basis for the still used 3 step Unfreeze-Change-Freeze
method of Change Management was formed.
Real Change Project – Implementation of a new mobile reporting and information tool.
My telecoms team are field based all over the uk, they implement software and hardware changes to the mobile phone mast equipment for the networks (EE/O2/Vodafone/TMobile). The problem I wanted to overcome was the delay in getting information back from the engineers as to the success or failure of activities. There tended to not be a management layer working at night.
Often the work is remote and could be during the night. I would be reliant on the engineers sending me a report in the morning before they went to bed. If they were in a remote part of the country they may not have internet coverage at their accommodation, so sometimes the report would be delayed by up to a week until they got home and could send the report from there.
The system I implemented was Evernote.
This system meant that they completed the report whilst onsite on their smart
phone, and the phone automatically uploaded the report whilst they where
driving around either going to their next job, or their accommodation for the
Fields were the name that Lewin used to describe the social forces that where required to cause a change from one state to another. His approach was that of investigating the social interactions and that change could be successfully engineered if the fields moved in the correct direction.
Lewin’s field theory rule states that ‘analysis starts with the situation as a whole’. By gaining an overview as early as possible, we intend to broaden the perspective from which we as scholarly practitioners engage with the general characteristics of the challenge or opportunity facing our organisational clients. Lewin highlighted the importance of characterizing the atmosphere (e.g. emotional tone or climate) and the amount of freedom existing in the situation.[ii](Neumann)
So the idea behind this is
that within a group, if it is stable then all the forces between the
individuals result in a stable group. To affect change you would need to upset
Quasi-Stationary Social Equilibrium
Lewin’s idea was
that at a social level within the group the group interacts, these interactions
when stable were referred to as Quasi-Stationary Social Equilibrium, he wrote
that this stability might only be whilst all forces were in balance, and might
only be for a finite amount of time. So if a new force were introduced to the
group then the balance would be upset and other forces would come into play. To
enable change, the forces would need to move in a certain direction, and that
equilibrium must again be reached to maintain that change.
Introducing Lewin’s 3 Step Change Model
As indicated by its name, there are three phases to Lewin’s Change Model, this makes it sound very simple to use and perhaps is why it has endured the the test of time.
The three phase change model is named Unfreeze-Change-Freeze, Lewin describes this as a level change where the current level of working or activity is unfrozen, then changed to a different level, and then frozen once more at that level.
In being a simple
model, the Lewin change model lends itself to be adapted by the change manager,
and can be made to include a lot of detail underneath each phase.
Phase One – Unfreeze
This phase of the model deals with accepting that people need to be conditioned for change, naturally as humans we are resistant to change, we get into routines and do not like to change them.
This phase deals with understanding and getting the people to understand the processes and practices that are currently in place, to access their relevance and to condition the people involved that change will be for the better.
Lewin advocates that “unfreezing” of the present level may involve different cases, this in itself allows the model to be adapted to different change projects.
The original writing uses some interesting language that is reflective of the age;
To break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir-up.[iv](Lewin 1947)
The use of this language implies an arrogance that the advocate of change is absolutely correct and that change is absolutely the correct course of action, Sturdy and Grey argue that the traditional change methodologies do not take into account an alternative to change. This appears to be true of most methodologies and models.
To not change would be an acceptable outcome if it was deemed correct at the first stage “Unfreeze” whilst analysing the current processes and procedures, however in practice the decision to change has already been made prior to initiating the change project. Unfortunately in the past the number of change projects that have failed has been very high. In 2003, the success of IT projects in industry was only classed as 15%, with 73% classed as Challenged and 10% Classed as failed.[v](Oxford 2003)
It would be prudent for the change processes to acknowledge that achieving the change should not be the goal at all costs, the original goals of the change should be periodically reassessed to maintain that there is still a requirement for the change. My implementation of Evernote would have been stopped if the requirement for remote reporting had ceased during the change project, however if this was a much larger change project within a large company, and the Change Manager was not kept informed of the larger picture then it would be quite feasible using the Lewin model that the change could be successfully implemented, success being a new system and process now being used by a company that no longer had the requirement. So where Sturdy and Grey talk of null change, yes that should be looked at as an option, but perhaps would also be better placed in the ongoing analysis of the change project, and if appropriate the change project should be stopped.
implementation of the Evernote system I had looked at all of the feasible
options available to me considering cost and complexity of implementation, I
did an office based trial to establish whether it was fit for purpose. I then
communicated to the engineering team why I was considering the implementation,
what benefits I expected to achieve, and what benefits it would bring to
them. After this communication I then
opened up the discussion to them incase they had any ideas or solutions
(Evernote was not a forgone conclusion at that point). Some very good ideas
came in, but they all pushed the project further in the direction of Evernote.
This method was very similar to the Group Decision as a Change Procedure that
Lewin investigated, the main difference was that a small section of the group
was pre-primed and used as an internal champions. This is where Lewin’s Model
is flexible and high level enough that it would have accommodated this as an
unfreezing step even though it would not have been strictly a part of it.
Phase Two – Change
In this phase, we actually make the changes.
Lewin found that to effect change it was easier to change a group rather than an individual, in using a workshop method, he was able to show much better results than by passing the change information to one person then allow them to try and push the change.
The example that he shows is that of convincing group of mothers to increase the amount of fresh milk that they were giving to their children.
In one group he gave the positive change information to one mother, the other group he gave the information as a group, this second group responded better to the change, he then goes on to show that the forcefield of the one mother is insufficient to effect the change on the group whereas the group that discussed it as a group then went on to successfully change. What this doesn’t highlight is that it could have been more complex than this, the second group was still lead by a single person, this person was not one of the group so it could be that person was given elevated status by the group and therefore was more easily swayed by their proposal increased milk intake. This also doesn’t take into account whether the individual mother was of a lower standing in the group. There is a lot of group dynamic that Lewin himself identifies, that perhaps makes the model more complex.
Sturdy and Grey argue that change is socially a lot more complex than the change models take into account, whilst I agree with them that this is going to be the case whenever there are complex interactions and especially people involved, to take into account all social interactions would make for a very complex and unwieldy model. The more complex the model, the less likely it is to be correctly implemented, using a simplified model such as Lewin’s would increase the chance of following it. Sturdy and Grey argue that null change should be considered, however in reality a decision to change has already been made. Specifically with the Lewin model in mind, this is from an authoritarian era where the managers or owners decided on the course of action and expected it to be implemented with little consideration for the social side. In this respect Lewin was looking further than the “I say you do” approach. Sturdy and Grey argue that change Models do not sufficiently address the social aspect of change, Lewin however, looked directly at the social side of change with his work on field analysis, and its reactions within the groups.
It was this social
side that I took into account when I implemented the Evernote system. I set up
a small trial with some of the engineers that I expected to be more open to
change, with this small subset of the team I was able to iron out many of the
small bugs prior to releasing it to the further team. I then brought the entire
team in to communicate how it would work, what the benefits to them would be
and to assist in setting it up. The first trial members were on hand to help
allay any fears of the change that the broader team had, this worked as Lewin
had discovered the group pushed it forward and the peers that had assisted in
the trials where bought into it, being able to show their peers the positives
rather than just being dictated to by myself. This approach whilst still
fitting within the Lewin model, does seem closer to an n step model such as
Kotter’s eight step model.
Phase Three – Freeze
Over time this is often become referred to as refreeze even though Lewin called it Freeze, the implementation is much the same, except to refreeze Is perhaps more correct as it implies that we had a state of frozen state prior to the first phase.
This is the phase where we make sure that the changes stick, without this phase there is risk that the people will revert back to the old pre-change way of doing things. In making the change stick, we are making it the new normal.
The achievement of the change should not be a measurement of the overall success of the change implementation, but the success should be recognised as having achieved longevity in the change, in that the new level of change is the new normal. Lewin advocates that without this there is potential for the change to slip back to the old level, in his example of increasing milk intake, something as simple as increasing the milk order would help make it stick.
For the Evernote
Project I had to continue to reinforce that Evernote was the place to find and
to upload the information, If I was asked for information, instead of giving
the information, I would send them to Evernote, I would also chase up reports
that were not on Evernote even though they had been emailed to me. Very quickly
the change was established as the norm.
When we look at Lewin through Sturdy and Greys article we can see that they would like the Change Models to look at the further social impact of change, they would also like to see that non-change is considered.
Throughout industry we can see constantly evolving business, it is a not impossible but perhaps rare to see a business that has stuck with the original business model and has not changed, are they less successful? Well the ones that have survived have perhaps found their niche and have resolutely stuck at it, they took the decision to stay the same, the window cleaner, the milkman or the mechanic that has used the same model for decades. Other industries such as mine do not stand still and perhaps sometimes fall into Sturdy and Greys change because change is good, not because it is needed.
Change projects can have massive implications for the company and socially, my Evernote project was relatively small, and was successful, however its failure would not have brought down the company or had an irreversible effect on the social wellbeing of my engineers. Some larger change projects could quite easily however be socially catastrophic, moving a company location or off shoring for instance, both could have massive social implications. With larger social implications, it is not uncommon for government level negotiations and lobbying to take place.
It is interesting that without any prior knowledge I managed to use an approximation of the Lewin model for my Evernote change project. This shows that even without formal training in change management, it is still possible to affect change. In recent years however there has been a shift to more professional change management as a specific function due to the large numbers of failed change projects. As we move to more professional change managers or even project managers (arguable the same thing) then we will see the learning loop close and feedback, this will possibly give rise to more complex change models and systems, or prove that in some circumstances simple is best and that 3 phases can indeed be sufficient, Unfreeze-Change-Freeze.[vi] (Lewin 1947)
My change project
was a relatively simple one that only involved approximately 40 people, and the
capital expenditure was quite low, being mainly made up of the time cost of the
people for training. Even this simple project would have fitted more closely to
an n stage model such as Kotter’s eight stage model, the granularity would have
guided me more closely even though I did manage to achieve all 8 of the stages,
establishing a need for urgency, ensure there is a powerful change group, develop
the vision, communicate the vision, empower the staff, ensure there are short
term wins, consolidate the gains and embed the change in the culture[vii]
(Kotter 1985). Again Kotter’s model fails Sturdy and
Greys test of the null option, do nothing is not an option.
[i] Encyclopaedia Britannica -www.britannica.com
[ii] Dr Jean Neumann – Kurt Lewin – Field Theory The Tavistock Institute
[iii] Kurt Lewin Frontiers in group dynamics 1947
[iv] Kurt Lewin Frontiers in group dynamics 1947
[v] Oxford University – Computer Weekly Study of IT Project Management, 2003
[vi] Kurt Lewin Frontiers in group dynamics 1947
[vii] Kotter Leading Change 1995