Lewin: A closer look at the life and work of

Below the surface - a deeper look at Lewin

Kurt Lewin was one of the seminal thinkers on change who influenced much of our thinking through the 20th Century. He and his students were behind many of the key developments that influenced modern management and leadership practices. A tireless man with a great mind, he thought there was nothing so practical as a good theory. This meant testing his theorems in real examples of change in wartime and industrial settings. If we paid more attention to his results we might find many elements of change a lot easier. Here we take a look at his life, some of his models and the experiments that shaped his thinking.

Kurt Lewin is one of the founding fathers of our modern understanding of change. A Polish Jew who had been awarded the Iron Cross for bravery in WW1, he began his work in Berlin in the 1920s before leaving Germany to continue his work in the US in the 1930s.

Kurt Lewin’s influence on modern thinking about change is often underestimated. Simple phrases like ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ and ‘group dynamics’ have their origins in his work. Invalided out of the front line in WW1 he returned to Berlin to complete his PhD. There he was involved in the schools of behavioural psychology and an influencer in the Gestalt school of psychology.

When the political situation in 1930s Germany meant he had to leave, he travelled via England, to the USA, meeting with Eric Trist whose later work during WW2 and at The Tavistock was influenced by Lewin’s theories.

In the US, Lewin worked at Cornell and Iowa Universities and later founded the Center for Group Dynamics at MIT. His work was always characterised by a huge energy, using a deep and considered view of group behaviour to devise practical experiments that developed our thinking. The best example of this was the setting up of the National Training Laboratories at Bethel, Maine. This has been described as the most significant social invention of the 20th Century.

Lewin died in 1947 of a heart attack at the age of 56. In his comparatively short life he had introduced to the world the ideas of action research, group dynamics, the change process, force field analysis and leadership climates.

There are many practical and insightful models and experiments than Lewin left us. He worked phenomenally hard, believing there is nothing so practical as a good theory. For him, things had to work in real life so he tested and adapted his work based on the experience of trying to effect change for people and systems in everyday settings.

His fascination with the interactions between the individual and their environment, the leader and the group and the relationship between research training and action has shaped much of what we now do when fostering change. The students he mentored included Festinger (cognitive dissonance) and Zeigarnik (Gestalt), Barker (environmental psychology) and Deutsch (conflict resolution)

Today there is a tendency to simply take Lewin’s models in isolation and find reasons for them to be no longer considered valid. We feel that if an effort is made to understand their origins, the nature of his thought and Lewin’s intent in developing them, there is still huge value to us today as we try to get closer to the heart of the art of making change happen.

For some Lewin’s models can seem out of date. We feel they merit deeper analysis. Ed Schein probably put it best:

“The key, of course, was to see that human change, whether at the individual or group level, was a profound psychological dynamic process that involved painful unlearning without loss of ego identity and difficult relearning as one cognitively attempted to restructure one's thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and attitudes".


"There is nothing so practical as a good theory"- Lewin



Kurt Lewin was a great believer that theories should be practical, directly relevant and useable in everyday life. A real example of him living his beliefs is provided by his work with the Harwood pyjama factory.

Lewin was invited by Alfred Marrow (who had studied with Lewin and was soon to become President of the Harwood company) to visit the new manufacturing plant in Marion, Virginia. This had 300 plus employees and was intended as the company’s primary manufacturing facility.

However, it had some problems. The employees, mainly women, were new to the work, and although keen, the pace of production was slow and output low in comparison to the company’s other sites. There was also a high turnover of staff. The company saw the problem as the quality of its recruits; Lewin was more interested in how they were treated.

He found that by sitting and talking with staff about how they did the work that the same job was being done in multiple ways. He instigated group discussions about how performance rates might be improved. Where the rates were simply discussed there was a marginal improvement. Where the group voted on how they might improve them then the change was significant. Production increased from 75 units to 87 over a five-day period and then was increased further to over 90 units. At the same time various control groups were monitored in the plant, none of which showed any significant shift. This represents a 20% improvement simply by using democratic group decision-making.

This fitted with Lewin’s beliefs about autocratic, laissez-faire and democratic decision-making.

The Harwood plant was the subject of many experiments over several decades. We can learn from Lewin how involving people properly in designing their own changes can be most productive. There is much of value here for today’s mantra on co-design and co-creation.

We can also learn the importance of testing our ideas, going out and experimenting to determine what really works. And finally we learn that even when we do this, and even when the results are positive, some human systems are so fixed in their beliefs that they will disregard the findings for decades.


Lewin and Lippet- social climate of groups

Lewin was interested in group dynamics and leadership. In collaboration with Ron Lippet (and others), Lewin carried out intensive research observing groups of boys. The research was focused on the dynamics of group behaviour in reaction to one of three leadership styles; democratic, autocratic and laissez-faire. Lippet and Lewin concluded that the democratic groups were more friendly and caring of each other. They were 'group minded'. They were also more creative in thought. Whilst the autocratic and laissez-faire groups tended towards being more aggressive and had cultures of discontentment and blame.



"If you truly want to understand something try to change it" – Kurt Lewin





Lewin's Model of Change

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.

Cognitive Restructuring

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.


Kurt Lewin - the art of unfreezing

Lewin's 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.

Disconfirming Information

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

Learning Anxiety

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.


Inside restructuring

By John Atkinson

The second stage of Lewin’s three-stage model of Change 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.


Force Field Analysis

No, it's not sci-fi. Force Field Analysis, sometimes called Field Theory, is a change tool developed by the systems theorist and psychologist Kurt Lewin, founded on the principles of Gestaltism and behaviourism. It is a tool based on the belief that everything has relevance. The simple aim is to highlight and uncover the driving and resisting forces for change. And then move towards change, not by increasing the power of the positive forces, as is often the underlying principle of change practices and the overarching trend in change, but instead through seeking to reduce the power of the resisting forces. Because if the resisting forces aren't addressed they'll just continue to get in the way.

Force Field Analysis is particularly useful when used in conjunction with Lewin's model of Change.

If you're not already familiar with it, this is the discovery technique:

  • In the centre of your display of choice,  name the 'desired state of affairs' or the issue.
  • On the left hand side of the display list all the driving (positive) forces for change.
  • On the right hand side list all the resisting forces.
  • Now ascribe a value between 1 and 10 to each force (numbers can be used multiple times.)

The numbering of forces enables their significance and potential influence and impact to be discussed and analysed, as well as making it clear where action needs to be taken.


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