Kurt Lewin, known as the father of change management and the freeze change model. Born in Prussia or modern-day Poland, in 1890 signified the beginnings of a new field of study. His parents operated a farm, but due to laws, they were unable to own the land due to their Jewish religious beliefs. Lewin, homeschooled in Orthodox Jewish tradition, later relocating with his family to Berlin during his adolescent years for better education.
World War One interrupted Lewin’s University studies in sociology and psychology in 1915. There he served in the German Army during World War I. Subsequently, he received battle injuries that sent him back to Berlin. There he attended the University of Berlin and completed his Ph.D. in Psychology.
Following his education, Lewin became a professor at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin. There he experimented with tension, motivation, and learning. However, when Hitler came to power in 1933 Lewin immigrated to the United States to escape persecution and fanaticism.
Upon arriving in the United States Lewin found work with Stanford University, Cornell University, and the University of Iowa. Eventually, he became the Director of Group Dynamics at MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he coined the term “Action Research” where experiments became dynamic. The methodology called for iterative adjustments and modification becoming the precursor to Shewhart’s Cycle or the Plan Do Check Act model. Lewin’s most significant work centered on his formula B=f (P, E) or behavior is a function of people in their environment. There he further clarified that people are products of their environment yet nature and nurture both shape personal behaviors.
Personal responses to change in organizations fascinated Lewin which led to his development of his “Force Field Analysis.” This model viewed people’s activity when affected by forces in their surrounding environment. The model’s principle stated that individual behavior is a function of the existing field that is affecting them. The analysis then starts with understanding the complete situation and distinguishing its component parts. The model believed that a concrete person in a concrete situation can be mathematically represented. Following his death, the change theory came to light during the compilation of his notes.
The Lewin Freeze Model consists of three stages. The analogy used for change is a frozen block of ice where the people represent water. People lock-in and become rigid in their beliefs about work. To change those beliefs, the block of ice must melt or unfreeze in which the ice turns into water and therefore, can take on new forms. Once the new form stabilizes, the ice or people leave behind their flexible forms and freeze into their new beliefs.
This model begins with the force field analysis of understanding what driving forces are causing the change to occur. This leads to the analysis of what restraining forces begin to hinder the change and resist movement. Lastly, the evaluation is identifying the end state where there is an equilibrium balance that takes place between driving and resisting forces.
The second phase begins with unfreezing. This is getting people to let go of an old method, process, belief, etcetera. The goal of the stage is for the stakeholders to let go of their individual resistances. This, in turn, increases the driving forces that direct people away from the status quo and decreases the restraining forces. I always think of a heavy smoker that experiences a heart attack and survives. They are then placed in a situation where a lifetime of their behaviors, habits, and beliefs dramatically shift.
Phase three is the change itself. During this period stakeholders experience new thoughts, feelings, and practice new behaviors. It is a clumsy stage where they search for new ways of how to do things. The stakeholders mentally manipulate new realities and play with the outcomes. Back to our smoking example, this is the recognition of the smoker that their life is going to be different as a nonsmoker. New patterns will emerge and self-recognition that they are becoming a new person.
The fourth and final stage is freezing. This is establishing the change as a new habit and turning it into a standard operating procedure. This stage prevents recidivism and falling back into old patterns. In this stage, our former smoker now eats celery sticks each time they are tempted to pick up a cigarette. This being one of many new habits to lock the behavior change in place.
During my time with HP, I was running a learning and development team for a sales center. It was a small center under 100 people, yet I managed two trainers and three sales coaches. We were highly resourced, effective, and vulnerable when company profits began to tank.
The writing was on the wall that the old development model would not last long. This was the driving force to discover new ways for the team to provide value to the sales agents. During my research, I discovered an obscure job role, Pre-Sales Consultant. This position was designed to be product experts that could consult with salesmen working on enterprise deals. These roles would be on commission and considered revenue-generating, thus protecting the roles from being slashed during workforce reductions. They also would have the flexibility to perform the role as part coach and part trainer.
I then began the unfreezing stage by explaining the situation to my team and my solution. This was not a demand or an immediate directive, but simply floating the idea. While their initial response was denial and objection, I wanted to embed in their mind that their roles would be changing, and I wanted them to mentally play with different ideas on how it could change. This started the melting of the ice.
Over the next three months, I casually talked to the team about changing directions. Nothing had been set in stone, nor directed. Following, as a group we met to design new ways to provide value. There they designed new roles and activities, talked through various options, and spoke to the teams that they supported. They prototyped a variety of service models until after a month they designed their new role as a pre-sales consultant. By this point, they had mentally manipulated the situation and options multiple times and settled on one. The metamorphosis had taken place which enacted the change.
Following the first month of the job change, patterns began to emerge. Roles and support shifted slightly from what was originally planned. Then we locked the roles and responsibilities. We established goals, set a compensation plan, and measured results. The change had frozen again and locked in place.
I ran this change event purposely using Lewin’s freeze model knowing that I had significant time to execute it. Knowing that initial resistance would occur, I wanted the team to self-create their future role. As predicted the support role tied effectiveness to sales performance sharpening the effectiveness of the team. Lastly, by using goals, formal roles and responsibilities, and a compensation plan I realized a highly valuable tool for locking in change.
There are numerous pros to the Lewin model. Starting with its simple framework any leader can apply it. It additionally forces the change leader to think qualitatively about how stakeholders will be affected. Lastly, the model nails the point of emphasizing the importance of freezing the situation to allow the employees to regain a sense of normalcy.
There are numerous issues that do arise out of the model. Beginning with it doesn’t address how to deal with detractors and the quick derailing of change efforts. Also, many organizations live in a constantly changing environment and simply they can never freeze. This may say more about a poorly run organization though and not the accurate reflection on the change model.
The use of Lewin’s freeze model in today’s workplace still occurs. Due to its ease of use, it helps amateur managers apply a change model when most managers do not even think about a change process. Theoretically, the model helps frame leaders in the concept of how people connect their sense of identity to their environment and that change should not be taken lightly. Foundationally, Lewin was the first to point out that leader and employee co-created change efforts lead to better outcomes.
This model signified the start of the study of change management. It gave the psychological baseline for future change models. It also gave a digestible model for thinking of a change in linear terms thus providing greater understanding and acceptance.
“A change towards a higher level of group performance becomes short-lived, after a shot in the arm, group life soon returns to the previous level. This indicates that it does not suffice to define the objective of planned change in group performance as the reaching of a different level. Permanency of the new level, or permanency for a desired period, should be included in the objective (Lewin, 1947).”
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