Kurt Lewin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We can credit Kurt Lewin with this quote, “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.”  For those not familiar with Kurt Lewin, he is often referred to as the father of modern social psychology because of his pioneering work.  He was among the first to use scientific methods and experimentation to look at social behavior.

Lewin was born in 1890, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1932, and died in the prime of his work in 1947.  Although his name may not be well known today, his work is still at the base of much of what we understand about how organizations function and how the people in them change.

His observations on how organizations change are worth pausing to look at as more businesses are attempting to re-create or transform themselves as a means to survive our current economic woes.  Lewin was among the first to see change as a process … you can’t flick a switch and make it happen.

His model for change was simple and it opened the door for many others to follow. It is often described as Unfreeze – Change – Freeze.  These 3 stages were explained by him using the analogy of changing the shape of a block of ice.

  1. Unfreeze:  You could try chipping the block, but Lewin pointed out that overcoming inertia and dismantling the existing mindset in the organization will get you much further.  You need to get everyone ready or softened up for change.  This means challenging the current view of things and finding ways to melt the resistance to change.
  2. Change: This is the stage when the change takes place, but it is also a period with confusion and fear flowing everywhere.  People are aware of things changing, but no one is that clear about how things will turn out.  There a lot of uncertainty that needs to be overcome through engagement and encouragement.
  3. Freeze:  This is the stage everyone wants to rush through.  The new change is firming up, but it takes time for everyone to get comfortable with the new state of affairs.  Pull away the support too soon and you won’t get the new “shape” you were hoping for.

All 3 steps are necessary. As Lewin said, “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.”  Fortunately for us, he did.

  • What would you like to unfreeze, change and freeze again in your organization? 
  • What practices would your customers want you to unfreeze, change and freeze again?