Lewin’s Model of Change - Organizational Change in Leadership
Change is a necessary occurrence for organizations to continually grow. Change is very important in leadership because it is the leadership that drives the change. A social psychologist named Kurt Lewin developed a model for change that I am particularly fond of. I give credit to Lewin’s Model of Change in helping me grow in my own organization as well as helping me tackle problems and achieve goals as I have grown. I still today think of how to apply Lewin’s Model of Change to situations in my organization and life that require change to happen.
I intend to further elaborate on the stages of Lewin’s Model of Change at a future date, because so much can be said about the technique used to apply them. I really enjoy breaking down his ideology of change because it is extremely applicable to situations where the change is required because of stagnation due to culture.
Overview of Lewin’s Model
To summarize, Kurt Lewin proposed that change should encompass three steps. A step of unfreezing, a step of actual changing, and then a step of re-freezing. We can generally understand this by thinking about what it is that we need to change and what change is. To need change that means we must have some established practices that seem to be the norm that are undesirable. The norm may not even be undesirable, rather, we may want to do things differently to achieve a different result. Often, we are met with much resistance. The core of Lewin’s Model focuses on breaking this resistance.
To successfully apply Lewin’s Model of Change, we must understand the series of events that need to happen for us to effectively change some normal practices within our organization. First, we must identify what it is that we want to change, and then unlearn those norms. After we have “un-frozen” the normal practices, we can then begin to introduce the new norms that we want. Once we have introduced the new normal, it becomes our job to further normalize this, and freeze this into permanency.
My First Application - an Anecdote
During what I would call one of the most important interviews of my life, I had the opportunity to sit in front of two of my mentors and try to convince them that I was the best candidate for a job. During this time a very key questions in the interview came up, as my department and organization required someone to help drive change, as many changes were required to succeed in the coming years. I did not yet know the terms or the direct strategy that Kurt Lewin proposed, however, I used the word “normalize” and it stuck with my interviewers.
I believe that we intrinsically understand what Kurt Lewin lays out for us, and that we know that to drive change to a situation where there has been a reinforced culture of doing things, we must first un-learn the autonomous repetition, introduce the new material, and then set in place a program to establish the new material to become autonomous as the old pre-change material was.
My mentor held me to Lewin’s final step in his model for change and quoted me following my promotion. He has said to me many times since then, “Normalize Josh, normalize.” As I further study topics of organizational management and come across strategies such as these that I sought to apply in the past because of what seemed like common-sensical knowledge, I am really pleased that I have been given the chance to grow and apply what I have learned in life.
Step 1: Un-freezing
This stage is the precursor to carrying out real change. It is best to think of this like making frozen food malleable again via the thawing process. There is no sense in trying to shape frozen hamburger, rather, first we thaw it out so that we can shape it how we like. The same is true for teams in an organization. If our team’s thoughts are fixed and they are autonomously carrying out procedures based on an old norm that we want to change, first we must prepare them for change.
Lewin advises that we do this by visiting and re-visiting the need for change until the individuals itself recognize the usefulness of the change. Allow the team to see why change is needed and allow them time to explore the why themselves. To release a locked set of ideals and prepare that set of ideals for molding, we need to properly prepare our team as individuals for a coming change and allow them to perceive the need for it.
Unlearning normalized behaviors take time and attention. We as leaders need to stay attentive to the level of fluidity that our teams are exhibiting by staying present and available for communication. Special attention is placed on the act of unlearning because we do not develop an autonomous sense of functionality overnight, and as such we cannot unlearn the autonomous behaviors that we may have been performing for years overnight either. Sometimes the best tool to unlearn behaviors is to release fragments of the change early and allow a preview of what is to come.
During this period of executing a change, we need to pay attention to those that will be resistant and focus some of our efforts. Dig deep when trying to convince the most resistant team members and use all the tools available to you. The most beneficial tools to have during this phase is undoubtedly positive relationships with rapport as well as the foundational influence that comes along with leadership.
A lot of the reason why resistant team members will follow you into change that they do not particularly like or agree with is rooted in their trust in you as a leader. Bring them on board early, explain the why, give examples, and listen to feedback. The most damaging thing that a leader can do at this point is declare the change just because followed by shutting down any types of feedback or criticisms to the change. Just because we listen to feedback and criticism doesn’t mean that we are going to change the organization’s game plan, however, it does result in a more widely accepted attempt at executing the change desired.
A lot of time can be wrapped up in this phase of change. It is impossible to tell exactly how long it will take to properly prepare an organization or team for any change, however, it is recommended that we set goals and push to stick to timelines. There is nothing wrong with adjusting along the way so long as the adjustments aren’t ultimately detrimental to the end game. This is supported by a large feedback loop that should extend from the floor to the upper management level where we use a channel to communicate positive and negative feedback regarding the preparedness for the coming change.
Step 2: The Change
Once we have spent a good deal of time unlearning behaviors and preparing individuals for change the task is set to officiate the change. This is the phase where we deliver the information and the procedures, as well as the new expectations and guidelines. It will be evident here if we have rushed the change as there is no proverbial dog to eat your homework when things turn upside down, and believe me, during change things often turn upside down.
The further things go astray, the more you will see resistance begin to pop up. These patches of resistance will be strongest in those who were resistant from the beginning, but the goal here is to communicate expectations, accept all feedback and encourage others to work with you on discovering the various properties of change that was foreseen and unforeseen, and finally to give feedback yourself to superiors so that they are able to do their job in executing the change.
Even in the most unfrozen of situations, it will seem evident that “we were just not ready for the change.” This is kind of a fallacy to fluidity in organizations, and the larger the organization, the more apparent this fallacy. This is typically a perception related to a type of cognitive dissonance, and this is exactly where my organization was when I suggested that we push forward to achieve a state of normalcy. It is at this point where we see the true drivers of change as well as the ones who want to hop back on the bus to do things the old way.
My organization has pushed through so much change in the past two years that it seems we have an “old way” to do everything, as a matter of fact, just about everything that we do has an “old way” that seniority will refer to from time to time, even though we are well into the re-freezing stage.
Step 3: Re-freezing
The final step in Lewin’s Model of Change has to do with the very idea that I proposed during my interview. So far, we have taken an autonomous function of an organization, prepared to change it, changed it, and now we are tasked with making the change the new autonomous function. It is important that we recognize this step in executing the change and begin to move in order to successfully complete it. It is important that we don’t stagnate during phase two, which is synonymous with just avoiding phase three, as then it will become normal to have a duality in autonomously carrying out organizational procedures, which can be more detrimental than avoiding the change in the first place.
To re-freeze is to create a culture of normality in executing functions brought about by the change, and to then make these autonomous actions by all members of the team or organization. This is done by time, reinforcement, feedback, and refining. To re-establish culture is a tall task, and often we procrastinate by returning to the “old way” of functionality. The drivers of change will be the ones constantly attentive to course correction and identifying problems and working towards finding solutions rather than avoidance.
To jump start this part of the process, I suggest identifying some of the strongest influencers and allow them to be drivers of change with you. Play to the strengths of some of your quick learners and invest some time in explaining some of the roots of the change in more detail. Task these individuals with a clear goal of disseminating this information to others. When looking for these associates, look for adaptable and influential team members that you have a strong relationship with.
This is the step in Lewin’s Model of Change that we should get lost in and lose track of time. Often you only realize that you have begun to make progress on this step once the progress is already made and you are reflecting on the past. If you have succeeded in re-freezing after a change, you should be able to clearly identify some fruits of your change and can reinforce the re-freezing by interacting with team members of the organization.
The Take Away
Every organization runs into stagnation and requires an execution of change. How we approach this need to change will determine whether we are successful in achieving our goals that relate to the root cause of the change. So many failures occur because of misguided approach. We can avoid failure and bolster our odds for success by proper planning and using our leadership resources in the best possible ways. Following Lewin’s Model of Change doesn’t guarantee that our change will occur without resistance, or that our change will be beneficial in the end, however, it does give us a road map to follow in order to roll out new organizational functions that we believe will benefit the organization in the end.
This model of change is the means for leadership to use in order to come to a concluding point in time where we can further assess its effectiveness. As leaders, it is our obligation to best serve our organization and our team by bridging the two together and being a facilitator of change deemed necessary. I believe by following structured systems that we can introduce and reinforce change for the betterment of our organization and our teams.