Amongst the change management approaches one of the most interesting and criticised as well is the model developed by Kurt Lewin back in the late 1940s. Despite the model has been accused of being “quaintly linear and static” and “wildly inappropriate” (Kanter et al, 1992), and more in general “simplistic”, the Lewin approach is still considered by a relevant number of authors and practitioners extremely relevant. Although many things have changed since 1947, when the model was presented, and the environment where businesses operate is evolving at higher and higher speed, many of the change management models developed in more recent times have clearly been devised on the basis of the Lewin approach.
Lewin’s model takes the name from the three stages throughout which it unfolds, namely Unfreeze/Change/Refreeze.
Lewin (1947) put at the basis of his model the assumption that “motivation for change must be generated before change can occur”, so that once the need for change has been identified the unfreezing stage, from which change stems, can begin.
This is the first stage of the change approach developed by Kurt Lewin (1947), actually it could be better said that unfreezing represents sort of a pre-stage to change in that the aim of this first phase is to prepare individuals to change and make the organisation ready to move from the current position to the new desired one.
Since during the unfreezing stage individuals could feel their status quo threatened, it is crucial to make people understand, from the very beginning, the organisation’s necessity and urgency for change.
In some cases the need for change can even appear to be somewhat like the blindly obvious, for instance in those cases in which declining sales or profits or unsatisfactory overall financial results have been recorded, as well as when a large number of customer complaints have been received by the business.
However, in other occasions the need and urgency for change may not appear so evident, so that creating a situation in which the organisation needs and wants change could definitely help. In general, we are looking at developing a persuasive and compelling communication process in order to support the idea that things cannot continue to be handled the way they are.
At this stage it is crucial to determine and provide evidence of the reasons and factors accounting for change, the main object being to receive the approval and support for change from everybody.
The unfreezing stage definitely is everything but plain sailing. During this phase it is very likely that an organisation’s core values and beliefs, as well the way things are done, could be disputed, events which may in turn trigger strong individuals’ reactions.
This is the phase in which, considering the Lewin’s Force Field Analysis (How to assess change feasibility), all of the restraining and driving forces have to emerge and have to be thoroughly assessed and investigated. The force field analysis effectively helps employers to determine if driving forces are actually more relevant than the restraining forces, in which case change could be designed and implemented.
This is the stage during which employers need to gain acceptance for change, communicating staff the benefits linked to change and trying to allay individuals fears (Porter et al, 2006).
As warned above, this will not really be smooth sailing; during this phase, in fact, it is very likely that the traditional way to do things and an organisation’s core values and beliefs will be object of critics, circumstances which could, in turn, give rise to disputes within the organisation. All of that will contribute to generate a state of controlled crisis from which could finally emerge a stronger motivation and need for change (Ritchie, 2006) and for a new, different state of equilibrium.
During this phase organisations will not only assess the need for change, but also the nature of the required change. Businesses will also devise the plans and design they consider most suitable to attain the intended results, and the most effective methods which will enable employers to monitor change progress as well.
Understanding people fears and concerns is particularly crucial in order to take appropriate, effective and consistent action capable to enable employers to allay individuals’ fears and concerns. In order to attain this aim, employers will propose redundancy packages to those who want to leave, assure employment to those who fear to lose their job and training to those who believe will not be able to perform effectively according to the new required way of doing things. All of these measures, providing appropriate and consistent answers to staff concerns, will enable a business to better cope with resistance to change and counterbalance the effects of restraining forces (Porter et al, 2006).
Once the unfreezing stage has been completed and people has won the fears associated with the uncertainty arisen during this stage, staff are now keen to know, and may be even curious about, the new proposed way to do things within their organisation.
Of course change is not a process which will be completed in a short period of time and, although organisations will struggle to make people understand that change will benefit all of them, there will clearly be individuals who will feel particularly threatened by the proposed change, especially those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo.
The change/movement phase, as its name suggests, represents the stage during which change is developed and implemented.
Usually, during the unfolding of this phase, a relevant number of individuals feel worried either because they perceive change as a threat which could worsen their working conditions or, more in general, because of the shock of the new. Clearly employers need to give individuals the time to understand change, get used to it and to accept the mistakes that it might imply especially at the beginning. Training and coaching, and an open communication process will certainly be useful to make people understand that employers are aware of the hardships individuals are undergoing and that they are there to support them and do whatever they can to make things easier. Initially people will possibly react paying lip service to the new practices and will take time to accept the new direction and to actively and proactively take part to the change process.
In order to get support and participation from everybody within an organisation, the communication process should, in particular, make clear to the entire workforce which the benefits of change for them are and how change will contribute, broadly speaking, to improve their working conditions. Although it can definitely help, in fact, in many cases it might be unlikely that people will just do their utmost to favour a change process only on the basis of the sense of urgency which has been created within the organisation and of the supposed and unspecified benefits it will bring to the organisation itself.
Thorough and constant communication will let feel staff strongly connected to the organisation during the “transition” phase, but also allowing time to individuals to understand and adapt to change will surely turn to be a key factor for the successful achievement of a change project.
Although very often you could feel that you are short of time, what effective and successful change usually actually requires is, instead, just time (Ritchie, 2006).
In many circumstances change is not even achievable in one single bid and several attempts need to be carried out before thoroughly achieving the intended results.
Once changes have been implemented, their results start to be visible and people within the organisation start to become acquainted with the new way of working it is then time, according to Lewin, to establish stability anew and “refreeze”.
It must be said that the “refreeze” stage can be started once it can be taken for granted that individuals have shown to accept change and the outcome of change implementation can be considered the new norm, the new normality. The new behaviour needs to be internalised and to “become standard company practice … absorbed into the organisation’s culture” (Porter et al, 2006). The new way of doing things has to be institutionalised and have to become part of the day-to-day organisation’s and of its employees’ normal activity. Broadly speaking, refreezing could be considered as the lull after the storm, people feel now at ease with the new situation.
As already mentioned above and warned by Porter et al (2006), not always the intended change is achieved in one single bid, sometime, in order to wholly attain the desired results, several attempts are actually required. This is basically due to the circumstance that the moment change is implemented resistance can diminish in power in some areas and increase, or even appear, in other areas. In such cases, for a whole range of reasons, not least the financial one, it is not worth insisting with change, in that doing so could seriously jeopardise the outcome of the entire process also at later times.
In general, refreezing is about stabilising and consolidating the new situation and system, preventing that individuals could go back to the previous way of doing things and it is about building, or rather, re-building relationships.
It must be said that this third and last stage of the process can be considered achieved when the new way of doing things is genuinely and willingly followed by individuals, put it another way when staff have genuinely embraced change.
Criticism directed against the model
It is just this third stage of the model, refreezing, which has provoked sharp criticism from many HR authors and practitioners to the Lewin’s model.
More in particular, it is argued that the modern business world is changing at a pace which gives no time to settle, and consequently to refreeze, after a change process has been implemented.
The Lewin model is then perceived as a model basically lacking of the flexibility required to fit with the currently dominating constant, and sometimes even chaotic, process of change requiring, as such, a great deal of flexibility. This criticism implies that the final stage of the process should not end up on a rigid, hard state but that it should, instead, conclude leaving the organisation in a sort of soft/jelly-like state which could be constantly shaped and moulded accordingly.
The criticism moved by Kanter et al (1992) about the lack of dynamism of the model is actually inappropriate, Lewin (1957), in fact, was clearly aware of the circumstance that any change could have been “frequently short-lived”. The refreezing stage is not intended as a final, conclusive and stable point, but as the point necessary to determine from which point and/or state the following process of change starts.
Considering change as a constant process dominated by chaos and dealing with change according to this assumption, is unlikely to bring a business appreciable results. As suggested by Ritchie (2006) constant change notwithstanding, refreezing holds firmly its importance in that without it individuals “get caught in a transition trap where they aren’t sure how things should be done”, consequently people will not be able to perform at appreciable standards, and let alone at their best capacity.
It must also be added that if at the end of each change process the conclusion of the process itself is not identified and recognised in some ways, which also means that a specific and definite objective has actually successfully been achieved, it might also turn to be pretty tricky to plan for a further change. You will not be able to find out when and where a process has finished and when and from where the new procedure starts, circumstance which, at best, will definitely let feel individuals bewildered and extremely wary about the future proposals for change.
As we all know, change is a difficult feat to achieve needing the genuine contribution and support of all individuals within an organisation, not putting people in the situation to find out what is going on and, to some extent, to rejoice of the positive outcome of the previous attempts will be, very likely, cause of growing disaffection with change processes and will contribute to reinforce the threatening power of restraining forces.
Refreezing is very much concerned with ascertain that people accept change and avoid that individuals use back the old method of doing things and this is possibly what Lewin intended by refreezing, supporting change in order it is maintained and taken for granted.
Ritchie (2006) suggests celebrating every successful change process as part of the refreezing stage to the double end of making people aware of the conclusion of the process and of making them understand that change is not as hard as it might seem. Thanking staff for their contribution to the success of the procedure and for the efforts they have made throughout the process will certainly reinforce individuals’ confidence when prompt to deal with the next change process.
Lewin’s approach is not as static as it might seem in the end and it is definitely compatible with those who consider change as a journey which does not have an end, but possibly just a number of rest stops. It is, in fact, widely recognised that change can allow just some moments of calm before the storm, with storm overwhelmingly predominating.
In conclusion, it can be said that Lewin’s change management approach is definitely still valid and that, in conjunction with the force field analysis, it can effectively enable businesses to successfully plan, design and implement change. Lewin’s approach is important not only in that representing a valuable structured approach to change management, but also because it can effectively help employers to keep track of all the achievements they have attained by means of the different change processes they have carried out and ultimately to better keep pace with the changing world. What matters is not misunderstand the model and the way it has to be intended.
Longo, R., (2011), Is Lewin’s change management model still valid?, HR Professionals, [online].
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