Kurt Lewin (lə-VEEN) had a profound impact on what we know about human behavior – and therefore change. From force field to topological psychology, he invented new ways of thinking about how people respond, and, importantly, he defined in his model of change an awareness of the need to prepare and reinforce.
Just Do It
Long before Nike started using “Just Do It” as their tagline, organizations everywhere tried ordering people to do things with varying degrees of success. Without context, desire, or understanding, people were expected to just change how they worked. While this was sometimes effective, it often had negative side effects that the organization didn’t like.
In smaller towns, the reputation of the firms made it harder to find the talent that was necessary to continue operations. A different way of thinking about how to get people to do what you want them to do had to be done. That’s where Lewin found the world as he formulated a new, more effective approach to change.
Unfreezing, Change, and Refreezing
The model is simple with only three steps:
- Unfreezing – The focus is on making people ready to change. This includes making them aware of their current behaviors and the risks that are inherent in these behaviors or the opportunities that might exist if they changed.
- Change and Transition – The actual change is made. That means educating people on the behaviors that are desired and helping them to change their behaviors until they match the desired outcome.
- Freezing – The behaviors are anchored. This phase is reinforcement and vigilance towards regression to previous behaviors.
While the model is simplistic, it is a great structure to focus on the key milestones that you need to accomplish in your change effort. In addition to introducing the need to unfreeze existing behaviors, he introduced the idea of committing those changes throughout the organization.
Lewin knew that people would intentionally and unintentionally subvert the change process by going back to old behaviors if there weren’t forces applied to retain those new behaviors until they became automatic. He researched the return of behaviors to their prior states. The use of the word subversion isn’t to imply any sinister motive, it’s simply what happens when change isn’t reinforced.
Lewin’s change model wasn’t ever an intentional area of study and work for him. It was an outcome of his work on explaining human behavior as a function of person and environment and his research into his theories of force fields and topological psychology. The observation on changes and what did and didn’t work was a side effect of trying to study behavior. Shortly after he published this first work, which included reference to the change model, he died of a heart attack. He never had the chance to expand upon his work on change or refine any of his other work.
The primary criticism leveled against Lewin’s model is that it is too simplistic. Others believe that the model doesn’t express the richness and challenge of change. Those criticisms are reasonable and why Lewin’s model is best used as a teaching tool that allows students to conceptualize broad categories of the change process before discovering more detailed models.