Lewin’s three-stage change process: what can we learn from a 60 year-old theory?

Organizational change management (OCM) principles have their roots in research done as far back as the early 1950s when psychologist Kurt Lewin developed his three-stage model for planned change.

Lewin theorized that all change will meet resistance; therefore, it is important to prepare people for the change in advance.  He refers to this process as “unfreezing” the current state of the organization.  Once the people are ready, you can make the change.  When the change is complete, you need to “re-freeze” to ensure that the changes become permanent.

Even though six decades have passed since Lewin published the three-stage change process, his research is still includes valid points that are important to change management today.

As we look at Lewin’s model, it’s important to note that although he theorizes change as having a distinct beginning, middle and end; modern change management looks at change as a continuous process.  Today we see continuous loops of feedback and learning opportunities.  The change is fluid; it cannot be frozen.

With this large caveat in place, let’s look at Lewin’s model and how we can apply his three-stage process into today’s change management world.

In today’s world, the heart of resistance to change amongst employees comes down to two basic issues: the ability to change and the readiness to change.  If employees do not feel that they are able to adapt and be a productive part of the organization after the change, they will resist the change.  It is important to develop a path for employees to be able to adapt and see their future in the post-change organization.

In addition, employees must be ready to change.  Readiness can be stymied by the lack desire within the individual (an internal force) or the lack of empowerment or authority to change (an external force).  Internal forces may come from skepticism about the success of the change or a lack of information available.  External forces may come from how managers are communicating with employees.  Your change communication plan should include contingencies to mitigate both of these types of resistance to change.

Change communication should work to build a sense of urgency during the unfreezing process.  Communications should focus on helping employees understand the need for the change to occur while still providing the functional and emotional support necessary to help employees at all levels.  Make sure employees are a part of the overall process to ensure that their concerns are properly understood and addressed.

Execute the Change
Set up the change in a way that many small wins can be made along the way.  Creating a history of small wins will help employees see the benefit of the change as they go.  This is a concept that was perfected by companies like Wal-Mart in the latter 2000s and is especially helpful for changes that have a long timeline or a long payback period.

As obstacles occur in the change process, work to correctly identify the obstacles.  Are they due to problems with the new process?  Are they the result of people’s resistance to change undermining the change effort?  Are they caused by the way the organization is structured?  Once you understand the real cause of the obstacle, you can then determine the right way to work with it.

Remember that during this stage in the change process, employees are most prone to make procedural mistakes as they learn the new way of doing things.  It is important to continue to provide support to the employees to be able to learn new skills and know that it is OK to be on a learning curve.

The long term success of the change is determined by just how well it sticks within the organization; it has to become a part of the corporate culture.  It’s important to reinforce the message of the successes of the change and actively work to reward the adoption of the change to begin the process of embedding the change into the long term culture of the business.

Even though Lewin’s theory has been around longer than most employees have been in the workforce, there are many points that are still valid today.  As the organizational change management field continues to evolve and mature, it’s important to look back and see where we’ve been as an OCM practice to remember where we are headed in the industry.