In the business world, there is an old adage that says 'the only thing constant is change.” This has never been truer and most modern businesses are continually engaged in some form of change management. Many different approaches to change methodology exist and those adopted should be tailored to the nature and size of the business and the sort of change that the business is looking to make.
Kurt Lewin's model for change management was first developed in the 1950s, but more than five decades later, it remains one of the most influential approaches to change adopted by businesses of all sizes. Lewin studied as both a physicist and a social scientist and, curiously, both sciences influenced his approach to change management.
Definition of the model
Lewin saw that change occurred in three key stages, generally referred to as Unfreeze, Change and Refreeze. Rather like shaping one lump of ice into another, you must first revert the ice to its liquid state before it can be refrozen in the desired state. By approaching change management in this way, Lewin's view was that the business would be better prepared and would have greater success because each stage of the change could be carefully considered and planned.
The unfreeze stage
In Lewin's model, the unfreeze stage is arguably the most complex, as it is here that the need for change is identified and a compelling argument is made to the business for the change to be implemented. Lewin's approach requires a a clear message around the need for change, supported by data and other evidence that will make it hard for the business to ignore. As such, the unfreeze stage requires a lot of preparation and a lot of communication and consultation. The 'unfreezing activity' is about breaking down existing structures and processes, establishing issues and their root causes and showing how they could be improved.
The change stage
The change stage is a more decisive period in the change process and is where action is taken in support of the proposed way of working. This period can be of any duration. Some change is so extensive that it can take literally years to complete, so there should be no expectation that the change stage will be quickly completed. Communication is vital here. Change managers need to continually engage with sponsors, stakeholders and those affected and this is normally a very hands-on role. There will be some trial and error in this stage and some processes will need to be refined and further refined. Change is about empowering individuals to work in new ways, rather than just telling them to do something differently.
The refreeze stage
At this stage, the business has adapted to the required changes and now requires help institutionalizing the changes. This stage is about establishing the changes into a business as usual state. This can be done through tangible tools (new standard operating procedures, organization charts, role descriptions) but is still fundamentally around culture. It is also about reviewing what is happening, establishing quality standards and incorporating the change into everyday ways of working. Communication remains critical here, but is more around 'what' is happening than 'why'. A critical part of the refreeze stage is ensuring that there is closure, through communication or through activity. The business needs to celebrate success and know when change has been successfully delivered.
Many other models of change management exist, to varying levels of complexity, but Lewin's model works in most environments. The simple, three-stage approach focuses change managers and businesses on the task in hand, and the analogy of freezing and unfreezing ice gives those involved something simple to reflect on during each stage in the process.