Kurt Lewin’s Change Management Model: The Planned Approach to Organizational Change

Kurt Lewin’s Three Stages model or the Planned Approach to Organizational is one of the cornerstone models which is relevant in the present scenario even. Lewin, a social scientist and a physicist, during early 1950s propounded a simple framework for understanding the process of organizational change known as the Three-Stage Theory which he referred as Unfreeze, Change (Transition) and Freeze (Refreeze).

According to Lewin, Change for any individual or an organization is a complicated journey which may not be very simple and mostly involves several stages of transitions or misunderstandings before attaining the stage of equilibrium or stability.

For explaining the process of organizational change, he used the analogy of how an ice block changes its shape to transform into a cone of ice through the process of unfreezing.

Three Stage Theory

Source: www.strategies-for-managing-change.com

Stage 1 - Unfreezing: This is the first stage of transition and one of the most critical stages in the entire process of change management. It involves improving the readiness as well as the willingness of people to change by fostering a realization for moving from the existing comfort zone to a transformed situation. It involves making people aware of the need for change and improving their motivation for accepting the new ways of working for better results. During this stage, effective communication plays a vital role in getting the desired support and involvement of the people in the change process.

Stage 2 - Change: This stage can also be regarded as the stage of Transition or the stage of actual implementation of change. It involves the acceptance of the new ways of doing things. This is the stage in which the people are unfrozen, and the actual change is implemented. During this stage, careful planning, effective communication and encouraging the involvement of individuals for endorsing the change is necessary. It is believed that this stage of transition is not that easy due to the uncertainties or people are fearful of the consequences of adopting a change process.

Stage 3 - Freeze (Refreezing): During this stage, the people move from the stage of transition (change) to a much more stable state which we can regard as the state of equilibrium. The stage of Refreezing is the ultimate stage in which people accept or internalize the new ways of working or change, accept it as a part of their life and establish new relationships. For strengthening and reinforcing the new behaviour or changes in the way of working, the employees should be rewarded, recognized and provided positive reinforcements, supporting policies or structures can help in reinforcing the transformed ways of working.

The three stages of Change Management can be aptly explained through the aid of an example of Nissan Motor Company which was on the stage of bankruptcy due to the issues of high debts and dipping market share.

During that period, Carlos Ghosn took charge as the head of the Japanese automaker who was faced with the challenge of implementing a radical change and turning around the operations of Nissan, yet by keeping the resistance to change under control which was inevitable under such circumstances by forming cross-functional teams to recommend a robust plan of change in different functional areas. For facing the business challenges, he developed a change management strategy and involved the employees in the process of change management through effective communication and reinforcement of desired behaviours. For refreezing the behavioural change of the employees, he introduced performance-based pay, implemented an open system of feedback for guiding and facilitating the employees in accepting the new behaviour patterns at work.

According to Branch (2002, p. 4), Lewin’s change management model can be implemented in three ways:

  1. Changing the behaviour, attitudes, skills of the individuals working in the organization.

  2. Changing the existing organizational structures, systems and processes

  3. Changing the organizational climate, culture and interpersonal style.

Lewin’s model stressed on the interdependence of various units as well as subunits in an organization. This model assumes that organizations function under static conditions and move from one state of stability to another state of stability in a planned way, but the present day organizations function in turbulent scenarios and uncertain business environments. Furthermore, several critics criticized Lewin’s planned approach to change management for the following reasons:

  • It was criticized for being too simple and mechanistic, as a result of which it may not be applicable for the present organizational scenario.

  • Lewin’s Planned change model fails to take into consideration the radical or transformational change; it is only useful if incremental change is implemented in an organization

  • This model ignores the role of Power & Politics and conflicts. Moreover, it ignores the importance of feelings and experiences of employees which play a crucial role in the entire change process. The model is very plan or goal driven.

  • This model supports top-down approach to change management and ignores the importance of bottom-up approach in the change management process.

Lewin’s Force Field Analysis

Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis attempts to explain how the process of change works by diagnosing the driving and the restraining forces that lead to organizational change. One side of the model represents the driving forces, and the other side represents the restraining forces. The driving forces push the organizations towards the new state, and the restraining forces are the factors which provide resistance to change or are regarded as the behaviours of the employees that block the process of change. According to Lewin, stability can be achieved when both the driving and restraining forces reach a stage of equilibrium, which should be approximately of equal strength from the opposite directions.

According to the Force Field Analysis model of Kurt Lewin, effective change happens by unfreezing the existing state of affairs or the current situation, moving to a changed or a desired situation and then refreezing for making the change relatively permanent. During the stage of Unfreezing, the driving forces should be made stronger to motivate a change in the behaviour or ways of working, while the restraining forces should be made weaker or removed. Driving forces create a sense of urgency for the change. The driving forces from the external environment could be Globalization, Technological Development and IT revolution, changes in the workforce, etc. Apart from this, the driving forces may originate within the organization through the efforts of the corporate leaders.

Any change process should start with informing the employees about the influence of the external driving forces like competitors, changing trends in the consumer demands and preferences, regulatory compliances and various other factors. Apart from this for implementing change effectively, the restraining forces should be reduced or removed.

The restraining forces or the resistance from the employees can be controlled by way of effective communication and involvement of the employees in the process, training initiatives for strengthening the new set of knowledge and skills, implementation of stress management techniques to help employees in coping with the stressors, negotiation for ensuring compliance and the last method is implementation of coercive measures if all the other measures fail and the need for change is urgent in nature.


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Change Management