Kurt Lewin's model of change is a widely used method of understanding and approaching change in living systems.
According to Lewin successful change has to go through three stages: Unfreeze, cognitive restructuring and freeze (also known as re-freeze).
Accept a problem exists and decide to do something about it- systems have to become motivated to move forwards. This is a difficult stage for systems who are scared of learning. In fact Lewin said that fear of learning is the biggest obstacle to overcome.
Take action. Look for solutions and explore new ways of doing. Unfortunately experimentation doesn't always work out well, so this is a challenging time for systems. Change at this stage is often met with opposition from those who don't want to change how things are done.
Make the changes stick and become part of the culture of being and doing. If change is to make a difference, if its going to work then it has to become the new norm. Systems can be reluctant to accept change because they believe that at some point another change initiative will come along and change everything all over again.
The Art of Unfreezing
His change model has been much questioned and much misunderstood. The three stages of unfreeze, restructure and freezing get criticised without a thorough understanding of what he meant by the terms. Also, as is common with great thinkers, people have tried to chip away at his thought to prove their own worth, often without adding much that is new or of value.
Unfreezing for Lewin was the key start point and it had three principal elements; elements which if they weren’t in place would confound the change effort and keep the system locked where it was. Too often, change programmes today ignore these elements of unfreezing leaping directly to restructuring.
First and most simply the system needs disconfirming information. This is data, working with our analytic brain that contradicts our current way of doing things. This is usually readily available but we hide it behind ‘happy talk’. ‘Yes our sales figures are down, but it was a tough quarter in the market and we have a plan in place for recovery.’ A workforce hearing this soon concludes there is no need for change. Being honest about the reality of the situation is a critical first step.
On its own, though, this is not enough. Unless that disconfirming information causes us what Lewin would term ‘guilt’ or ‘survival anxiety’ we will not act. In other words we need to care, either because we feel we are at fault or for more selfish interest. This is an emotional connection with the problem. For me the most critical moments in change programmes come when people are confronted by the contradiction between what they say they do and what they really do.
Most significant of all as a block to unfreezing is the third element that Lewin termed overcoming learning anxiety. That is our fear that we won’t be able to make the change. In a change process where your job is at risk, do you feel safer trying something new that you aren’t sure how to do or carrying on doing what you’ve done for years?
When we focus properly on addressing Lewin’s unfreezing we start any process of change with a huge advantage. When we ignore it, we risk high levels of failure.
The second stage of Lewin’s three-stage model is known as restructuring. Too often this is taken to mean restructuring the organisation. For Lewin it meant cognitive restructuring; changing the way we think about the circumstances we are in.
The first element of this is ‘cognitive redefinition’. This means seeing the problem differently. It could be perhaps through understanding that words we have been using to describe the problem may be interpreted in different ways or have different meanings. It may mean discovering that a concept can be much more broadly interpreted than we had supposed. It can also mean changing the anchors we use to judge a situation, realising that they are not absolute and other perspectives exist.
So we have redefined the problem, we now need to acquire new learning to enable us to do things differently. The easiest way to do this (and the next element in restructuring) is by ‘imitation’. Unfreezing creates the motivation to learn but it doesn’t determine what you do learn. By imitating others who are, in our perception working effectively, we can quickly assimilate new ways of doing things. We would never do this without first unfreezing; we would instead find ways to avoid the obvious.
There is, however, a problem with imitation. Although it is a quick and easy way to learn, if the person you are imitating hasn’t really solved the problem, then you won’t either. The third element of restructuring is therefore ‘scanning’. This is a process of searching your environment for insight and includes a fair amount of trial and error learning. It is slower than scanning, more painful perhaps, but ultimately the source of creative breakthrough.
So unfreezing creates the predisposition to learn and restructuring is the way we do that learning. If people are to achieve breakthrough, Lewin argues they must go through these stages. Simply telling people the new process and aligning rewards and incentives is never enough for change to be embedded in the long term.