Lewin's Change Management Model

Understanding the Three Stages of Change

Find out about Lewin's Change Management Model,
in this short video.

Change is a common thread that runs through all businesses regardless of size, industry and age.

Our world is changing fast and, as such, organizations must change quickly too. Organizations that handle change well thrive, whilst those that do not may struggle to survive.

The concept of "change management" is a familiar one in most businesses today. But, how businesses manage change (and how successful they are at it) varies enormously depending on the nature of the business, the change and the people involved. And a key part of this depends on how far people within it understand the change process.

One of the cornerstone models for understanding organizational change was developed by Kurt Lewin back in the 1950s, and still holds true today. His model is known as Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze, refers to the three-stage process of change he describes. Lewin, a physicist as well as social scientist, explained organizational change using the analogy of changing the shape of a block of ice.

Understanding Lewin's Model

If you have a large cube of ice, but realize that what you want is a cone of ice, what do you do? First you must melt the ice to make it amenable to change (unfreeze). Then you must mold the iced water into the shape you want (change). Finally, you must solidify the new shape (refreeze).

Lewin's Change Model: Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze

By looking at change as process with distinct stages, you can prepare yourself for what is coming and make a plan to manage the transition – looking before you leap, so to speak. All too often, people go into change blindly, causing much unnecessary turmoil and chaos.

To begin any successful change process, you must first start by understanding why the change must take place. As Lewin put it, "Motivation for change must be generated before change can occur. One must be helped to re-examine many cherished assumptions about oneself and one's relations to others." This is the unfreezing stage from which change begins.

Unfreeze

This first stage of change involves preparing the organization to accept that change is necessary, which involves break down the existing status quo before you can build up a new way of operating.

Key to this is developing a compelling message showing why the existing way of doing things cannot continue. This is easiest to frame when you can point to declining sales figures, poor financial results, worrying customer satisfaction surveys, or suchlike: These show that things have to change in a way that everyone can understand.

To prepare the organization successfully, you need to start at its core – you need to challenge the beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors that currently define it. Using the analogy of a building, you must examine and be prepared to change the existing foundations as they might not support add-on storeys; unless this is done, the whole building may risk collapse.

This first part of the change process is usually the most difficult and stressful. When you start cutting down the "way things are done", you put everyone and everything off balance. You may evoke strong reactions in people, and that's exactly what needs to done.

By forcing the organization to re-examine its core, you effectively create a (controlled) crisis, which in turn can build a strong motivation to seek out a new equilibrium. Without this motivation, you won't get the buy-in and participation necessary to effect any meaningful change.

Change

After the uncertainty created in the unfreeze stage, the change stage is where people begin to resolve their uncertainty and look for new ways to do things. People start to believe and act in ways that support the new direction.

The transition from unfreeze to change does not happen overnight: People take time to embrace the new direction and participate proactively in the change. A related change model, the Change Curve  , focuses on the specific issue of personal transitions in a changing environment and is useful for understanding this specific aspect in more detail.

In order to accept the change and contribute to making the change successful, people need to understand how the changes will benefit them. Not everyone will fall in line just because the change is necessary and will benefit the company. This is a common assumption and pitfall that should be avoided.

Tip:

Unfortunately, some people will genuinely be harmed by change, particularly those who benefit strongly from the status quo. Others may take a long time to recognize the benefits that change brings. You need to foresee and manage these situations.

Time and communication are the two keys to success for the changes to occur. People need time to understand the changes and they also need to feel highly connected to the organization throughout the transition period. When you are managing change, this can require a great deal of time and effort and hands-on management is usually the best approach.

Refreeze

When the changes are taking shape and people have embraced the new ways of working, the organization is ready to refreeze. The outward signs of the refreeze are a stable organization chart, consistent job descriptions, and so on. The refreeze stage also needs to help people and the organization internalize or institutionalize the changes. This means making sure that the changes are used all the time; and that they are incorporated into everyday business. With a new sense of stability, employees feel confident and comfortable with the new ways of working.

The rationale for creating a new sense of stability in our every changing world is often questioned. Even though change is a constant in many organizations, this refreezing stage is still important. Without it, employees get caught in a transition trap where they aren't sure how things should be done, so nothing ever gets done to full capacity. In the absence of a new frozen state, it is very difficult to tackle the next change initiative effectively. How do you go about convincing people that something needs changing if you haven't allowed the most recent changes to sink in? Change will be perceived as change for change's sake, and the motivation required to implement new changes simply won't be there.

As part of the Refreezing process, make sure that you celebrate the success of the change – this helps people to find closure, thanks them for enduring a painful time, and helps them believe that future change will be successful.

Practical Steps for Using the Framework:

Unfreeze

1. Determine what needs to change.

  • Survey the organization to understand the current state.
  • Understand why change has to take place.

2. Ensure there is strong support from upper management.

3. Create the need for change.

  • Create a compelling message as to why change has to occur.
  • Use your vision and strategy as supporting evidence.
  • Communicate the vision in terms of the change required.
  • Emphasize the "why".

4. Manage and understand the doubts and concerns.

  • Remain open to employee concerns and address in terms of the need to change.

Change

1. Communicate often.

  • Do so throughout the planning and implementation of the changes.
  • Describe the benefits.
  • Explain exactly the how the changes will effect everyone.
  • Prepare everyone for what is coming.

2. Dispel rumors.

  • Answer questions openly and honestly.
  • Deal with problems immediately.
  • Relate the need for change back to operational necessities.

3. Empower action.

  • Provide lots of opportunity for employee involvement.
  • Have line managers provide day-to-day direction.

4. Involve people in the process.

  • Generate short-term wins to reinforce the change.
  • Negotiate with external stakeholders as necessary (such as employee organizations).

Refreeze

1. Anchor the changes into the culture.

  • Identity what supports the change.
  • Identify barriers to sustaining change.

2. Develop ways to sustain the change.

  • Ensure leadership support.
  • Create a reward system.
  • Establish feedback systems.
  • Adapt the organizational structure as necessary.

3. Provide support and training.

  • Keep everyone informed and supported.

4. Celebrate success!

Key Points

Lewin's change model is a simple and easy-to-understand framework for managing change.

By recognizing these three distinct stages of change, you can plan to implement the change required. You start by creating the motivation to change (unfreeze). You move through the change process by promoting effective communications and empowering people to embrace new ways of working (change). And the process ends when you return the organization to a sense of stability (refreeze), which is so necessary for creating the confidence from which to embark on the next, inevitable change.

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Comments (9)
  • Retaliate wrote This month
    Hi, enjoyed this succinct resource however, I am critical of the analogy and the theory itself. I feel that organisational change is best viewed as a body of water change in or course (direction) rather than water changes state. I think that analogy is far more transformational than most change in organisations. To further this point I would argue that we should never view a business as frozen, stagnation is equal to death of a business. Organisations are subject to constant change, swell and streamlining to match the environment. In terms of the actual theory, while it is important to consider why an organisation needs to change, the result orientation (the where we need to end up) is tantamount, and should feature in stage one of the process. It is this understanding of where the company will need to be that will direct and shape the process.
  • Rajendra wrote This month
    Good technique for change management implementation.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Braja

    Good to hear that you enjoyed the article. And yes, growth implies that some type of change has to take place. Growth can't take place without change.
    What are some of the biggest challenges you face regarding change?

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • SALAPADA wrote Over a month ago
    Hi James.

    Thanks a lot for the Article on Change.

    Change is always a change for better not bitter.
    This helps a lot in one's two "P" of life.

    Regards
    Braja
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi benlouie1,
    Another tool that I think you will appreciate is this one on coaching though change: http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newTMM_19.php it provides a great outline for helping people work though their emotions nd overcome some of the natural resistance to change. As leaders it's important to be aware of how difficult it is to change so being aware and having tools to help people through the process is invaluable.

    Hope you enjoy it. Keep us posted on other tools you find particularly helpful. It helps us all learn.

    Best!
    Dianna
  • ChaiLatte wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you for making the Lewin Change Management Model to be so easily understood. This knowledge is so useful for leaders to put theory into practice by implementing a logical and rational communication flow. "Change" is not operating in the dark anymore, it should be transparent and accessible to the information seekers.

    Best regards.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi garyb121

    Welcome to the Club and welcome to the forums too. It's great to see you around and would love to hear some more of your thoughts, ideas and challenges. Career Cafe Central is the forum where we do most of our 'talking' and we look forward to 'seeing' you there.

    The other day I was doing research for a course on change management and happened upon a short video clip (2 minutes) on Youtube about the Lewin Change Management Model. It is a little simplistic, but nonetheless gives a good example of this model at work. The link is as follows (just add the www bit) youtube.com/watch?v=uHR8gw6derg .

    garyb121, please let me know if you need any help around here, I'll be only too glad to assist you.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • garyb121 wrote Over a month ago
    Hi,

    Thanks for the topic. It is really helpful!

    Anyway, do you have any real example for Lewin Change Management Model?

    Thanks!
  • bigk wrote Over a month ago
    Hi James

    This is a good resource to use as a source for development of change.

    I have not looked recently but did look not too long ago.

    This is a useful reminder to evaluate and reuse it to consider different ways to provide or help any adapting or utilising to create a flow of change or even a small change.

    It can help people use change to help get better options and outcomes.
    It can help people with confidence to adapt.
    It can help people achieve.

    Bigk

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