Lewin’s change management model helps businesses manage the uncertainty and resistance associated with change. Kurt Lewin, one of the first academics to focus his research on group dynamics, developed a three-stage model. He proposed that the behavior of individuals happened as a function of group behavior.
Understanding Lewin’s change management model
No business is immune to change in the rapidly changing global marketplace of today.
While change is certainly not a new concept, many organizations nevertheless fail to implement change management strategies.
To help provide a framework for change, social psychologist Kurt Lewin developed a three-stage model.
Lewin was one of the first academics to research organizational development and group dynamics.
He proposed that the behavior of an individual in response to change was a function of group behavior.
From his research, Lewin also noted that the model should evaluate two core ideas:
- The change process in organizational contexts.
- How the status-quo might be challenged to facilitate effective change.
The three stages of Lewin’s change management model
Each of Lewin’s three stages is vital in successfully instituting change. They describe the nature and implementation of change and common obstacles that result.
Stage 1 – Unfreeze
The unfreezing stage involves readying a business for change by ensuring that all staff understand its importance.
Four important steps characterize the first stage:
- Gauge the need for change. A Current State Analysis (CSA) can be performed to determine what needs to change and why. This will mean challenging and then breaking down the status quo, which may require difficult conversations. Existing behaviors or practices will need to be revisited and then revised.
- Gather support from key management personnel or interested stakeholders.
- Develop a strategy for communicating change. The strategy should be a vision that aligns with company goals or objectives where applicable. Above all, the strategy needs to be persuasive.
- Manage doubt and uncertainty. Some will inevitably oppose change, but a framework such as the Force Field Analysis can make it less intimidating by assessing a list of pros and cons.
Stage 2 – change
By the second stage, most individuals have thawed out and ready to move toward a future desired state.
Nevertheless, many will feel uncertain and apprehensive about the transition process. To manage employees during this critical juncture, consider these tips.
- Leadership should clearly communicate the benefits of change, both for the individual and the business.
- A regular meeting should be held to address concerns and provide support where necessary. This dismisses hearsay which can run rampant through a department and cause panic.
- Appropriate action should be role-modeled by management, who should also design quick wins to empower and motivate employees toward appropriate action.
Stage 3 – Refreeze
The goal of the final stage is to ensure that change is incorporated into the organizational culture.
Ultimately, all staff must consider the change as the new status quo. Otherwise, there is a potential that they revert to old habits.
To counteract this, businesses should:
- Link new changes into broader company culture through the identification of change supporters and change barriers.
- Brainstorm methods of sustaining change long term. This can be done through incentivization and regular performance evaluation. Leadership should also be highly visible in promoting change as a means of influencing group dynamics and behavior.
- Provide formal and informal training and support to employees who are finding it particularly difficult to adjust.
Lewin’s change management model example
In 1999, Japanese auto manufacturer Nissan had over $11 billion in debt and was on the verge of bankruptcy.
With a consistently declining market share, the company formed a strategic alliance with French company Renault which would assume Nissan’s debt in exchange for a 36.6% stake.
The alliance made sense for both parties on paper. Renault would be able to take advantage of Nissan’s strong presence in North America and engineering pedigree.
The success of the deal also relied on Nissan’s ability to reverse its fortunes and once again become profitable.
The man tasked with this massive transformation was Carlos Ghosn, a change agent who understood the particularly sensitive nature of corporate mergers and alliances.
For the initiative to work, Ghosn also noted that the identity and self-esteem of Nissan employees must be protected at all costs.
This did not tend to be easy, since making changes and safeguarding employee identity could easily conflict with one another.
Ghosn was also an outsider who was met with skepticism and trepidation by Nissan’s Japanese management.
How change at Nissan was accomplished
Ghosn ensured that Renault would remain sensitive to Nissan’s corporate culture post-merger, with the latter able to form a new culture based on some elements of Japanese tradition.
This was extremely important to Nissan because the gesture showed respect to its people and allowed the company to protect its identity and dignity.
Certain aspects of Japanese cultural influence needed to change, however. One aspect was the outdated employee reward scheme that was based on tenure and age.
Essentially, those who stuck with the company the longest were paid the most irrespective of their performance.
Ghosn revamped this system to base the reward scheme on results, and when some younger employees became leaders of older employees, there was inevitable cultural pushback from some senior managers.
He also addressed Nissan’s organizational inability to accept responsibility, another cultural aspect where departments within the company blamed each other for subpar outcomes.
First, he mobilized Nissan’s management into cross-functional teams (CFTs) with the goal of garnering organization-wide support. These teams then identified and spearheaded the transformative changes that were necessary to keep the company afloat.
Each was given three months to review company operations and brainstorm ways to return the company to profitability.
The teams were also deliberately composed in such a way that no single perspective or opinion could dominate.
The unfreezing stage
The Nissan Revival Plan was released in October 1999, a blueprint developed by Nissan’s own executives over the aforementioned three-month period.
Unsurprisingly, plant closures and employee terminations were criticized by the press as revolutionary and counter to Japanese tradition.
To ensure that change was incorporated into Nissan’s organizational culture, Ghosn empowered employees to consider non-conventional methods and introduced an open feedback system to help staff increase workplace adaptability.
Performance-based incentivization was also seen as an important component.
Three years later in 2002, Ghosn was meeting with team leaders once a month and receiving briefings from entire teams at least once a year.
The cross-functional teams were such a success that they were retained by the company.
In addition to finding new ways to increase performance, the teams were also tasked with ensuring that Nissan did not revert to old ways of operating.
- Lewin’s change management model provides a simple yet effective framework for businesses wishing to institute change.
- Lewin’s change management model argues that the capacity for change in an individual is strongly influenced by group dynamics. As a result, the model has a strong focus on the role of leadership during the change process.
- Lewin’s change management model describes three stages common to most change processes. Businesses can use the three stages to remove the status quo, guide employees through the transitional process, and then ensure that implemented changes become part of organizational culture.
Read Next: Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model
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