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Lewin’s Change Model; Why it Still Matters After 70 Years

by: Shiv Sharma
Lewin’s Change Model; Why it Still Matters After 70 Years

Change management is a discipline as old as mankind itself. Even our cave-dwelling ancestors must have struggled with introducing new ideas to their tribes. 

Organizational change is hard because it rarely affects each individual positively. Even if it does, it’s highly unlikely that everyone realizes that. 

There have been many attempts to create a cohesive change management model. One that can serve as a foundation on which companies can embrace change with least friction. The most enduring among them was created by Kurt Lewin.

kurt-lewin-change-model
Kurt Lewin (1890 - 1947)

Recognized as the founder of social psychology, Lewin was a German American psychologist who pioneered the scientific study of group dynamics and organizational development. Towards the end of his career, he created his three-step change management model.

Lewin’s model is pretty simple. He describes organizational change by taking the metaphor of a block of ice that needs to be reshaped. As you’d imagine the first step of the model is…

lewins-change-model

1. Unfreeze

To reshape the ice cube, you need to melt it first. Similarly to drive a change in an organization, you have to first challenge the status quo. 

During this stage, you need to sell the change to the company. The team members need to be convinced why the current way of doing things needs to change and how is the new way an improvement?

Communication can make or break the deal at this stage. Change that requires people to alter their behaviors invokes different emotions among different people. Rather than making the age-old assumption – people resist change, it’s important to understand how the change would affect different people in your team. Some might get enthusiastic, some anxious, some downright rebellious. 

It’s important to be transparent at this stage and clarify in detail how the change would affect the team. Better create a controlled crisis at this stage than to let rumors spread.  

The objective at this stage is to build consensus and (if possible) excitement about the impending change.  

2. Transform

After the expectations are set, the transformation can begin. This is where the change actually kicks into action. 

During the transformation phase, people would learn new skills and behaviors associated with the change. This requires both persistence and patience from the management. It’s important to note that different people in the team will embrace change at a different pace. This is when the team is most vulnerable during the change management process and therefore requires constant support and attention. Mistakes are inevitable at this stage, therefore one should focus on the long term benefits that the change aims to achieve. 

This is one of the rare instances where micromanagement isn’t a bad idea. It’s tough for any employee to unlearn existing and adopt new behaviors. Mentorship and handholding can really help expedite the process. 

In certain situations, despite the best intentions and support, some people will not adapt well to the change. As a manager, you’ll need to figure out how to deal with such scenarios. 

The objective at this stage is to support the team and guide them through the practical aspects of the change. 

3. Refreeze

Once the transformation is complete, it can be easy to believe that the change is complete. However, there is still one critical step left – refreeze.

Unless steps are taken to reinforce the change, people have the tendency to fall back to their previous ways. Organizations need to proactively ensure that the change becomes a part of the culture. 

Similar to the first stage, communication is critical here. It’s not enough to simply tell the team why the change is important. They also need to see it for themselves. When you reiterate how the change helped improve things, you also set the stage for future changes by making your team more receptive. 

Occasionally it’s said that this step has lost its importance because of the ever-changing business landscape. By the time a change is reinforced, it’s time for another one. However, unless the process of refreezing is done, organizations will lose control over any change that they introduced. It still remains as important as ever. 

The goal at this stage is to ensure that the change becomes the new status quo against which future changes would be measured. 

Why does Lewin’s model still endure?

Lewin’s often draws flak because of its simplicity. Critics argue that it’s an oversimplification of a highly complex process. However, it’s this simplicity that made it popular in the first place because every team can relate to it.       

It also stresses the importance of leadership in each of the three stages. After all change management is one of the defining functions of leadership. How well a change is introduced in an organization is one of the best indicators of how efficient its leadership is.

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