Monday, November 27, 2017

A Theory That Matters: Lewin's Three Phases of Organizational Change

I searched on Amazon for books that cover some aspect of change and came up with over 200,000 titles. That’s not surprising if you pause to consider how often we face change on personal and professional levels. 

I'm expanding on my thesis regarding the importance of theory to practitioners here by considering one important theory of change, which helps us to understand the substance underlying this allure. 

Kurt Lewin posited a model of planned change that consists of three phases. These are unfreezing, moving, and freezing (referred to as refreezing by some researchers). His model represents a starting point for designing a change process (Clayton, 2008). It also represented the first systematic work on organizational change.

Let's consider each of the three phases in more detail. 

First, there's the unfreezing phase. It involves challenging established patterns and structures. These activities must occur before discarding old behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and values. In other words, individuals must jettison their resistance and desire to conform. 

Second, there's the moving phase. It incorporates changes in attitude, values, structure, feelings, and behaviors. These result from discussing and planning new actions (Weisbord, 1987). Confusion and transition dominate this phase. Attempts to predict or identify a specific outcome of change are difficult. Individuals and groups know old ways are being challenged. They do not have a clear picture of what will replace them, however.

Finally, there's the freezing phase. It refers to the new place of stability or equilibrium that exists with change. A new mindset crystallizes and individual comfort levels return. New behaviors support individual behaviors, personalities, and environment or they will not endure. This group decision does not ensure permanent change, however. Without reinforcement, change may be short-lived and individuals may regress to old behaviors. 

Lewin's model has several strengths. Schein (1995) argued his change phases offered a theoretical foundation for other perspectives. It identified critical variables that needed to be observed in the process. 

Other researchers have illuminated strengths of the model. These include its focus on how to move people through change (Clayton, 2006); its grounding in democratic institutions and values (Burnes, 2004); its emphasis on group dynamics in change (Marrow, 1969); and its potential for improving group effectiveness in stable environments (Coram & Burnes, 2001). 

Others have discussed the limitations of Lewin’s model. Clayton (2008) argued that the term “phases” might be misinterpreting as static. Madsen (2008) noted the model offers little guidance on the unfreeze phase. How to prepare people to be open and ready for change is absent. Coram and Burnes (2001) considered the model most applicable in top-down, autocratic organizations. They also believed it emphasized incremental and isolated change. It therefore could not incorporate radical, transformational change. Finally, Burnes (2004) considered the model too simplistic and mechanistic. It thus failed in the face of continuous, open-ended organizational change. It also ignores the roles of power, politics, and conflict in organizations, he argued. 

Lewin’s change phases nonetheless remain relevant. They help to explain infrequent, discontinuous, and intentional change (Weick & Quinn, 1999). More importantly, his model influences current discussions of change (e.g., William Bridges' three-stage transition model) (Clayton, 2008). It informs the organization design (OD) movement (Cummings & Worley, 1997, p. 23). Finally, it is central to ongoing research on the theory and practice of change management (Burnes, 2004). 


Burnes, B. (2004).  Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change: A re-appraisal. Journal of Management Studies, 41(6), 977-1002. 

Burnes, B., & Coram, R. (2001). Managing organizational change in the public sector: Lessons from the privatization of the Property Service Agency. The International Journal of Public Sector Management, 14(2), 94-110.  

Clayton, M. (2008). Super Models. Training Journal. Retrieved November 6, 2017 from 

Madsen, S.R. (2008). Preparing faculty and staff for change.  Academic Leadership, 6(1). Retrieved November 6, 2017 from 

Marrow, A.J. (1969). The practical theorist: The life and work of Kurt Lewin. New York: Basic Books.  
Schein, E.H. (1995). Kurt Lewin’s change theory in the field and in the classroom: Notes toward a model of managed learning. Retrieved November 6, 2017 from 

Weick, K.E., & Quinn, R.E. (1999).  Organizational change and development.  Annual Review of Psychology, 50, 361-386. 

Weisbord, M. (1987). Productive workplaces: Organizing and managing for dignity, meaning, and community.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

No comments: