Kurt Lewin was a modern pioneer in social, organisational and applied psychology. He was also a physicist and explained organisational change using the analogy of a block of ice.
His model has three stages:
To convert a block of ice into a cone of ice you need to make it amenable to change (unfreeze). Then you pour the iced water into your new shape (change). Finally, you must solidify it (refreeze).
Proposed in the 1940s, Lewin’s model was the first and most famous early analysis of how organisations deal with change.
How the Lewin model works
1. Unfreeze – Creating a sense that a change is needed
This is about looking at the “way things are done around here” and challenging the status quo.
2. Change – Moving towards a new behaviour
With new approaches comes new learning, and it is important that an open, two-way dialogue is sustained throughout.
3. Refreeze – Setting this behaviour as the new normal
Staff begin to feel confident and comfortable in this new world.
If you skip straight to the ‘change’ phase, the change will meet resistance.
A vital point is that all individuals likely to be affected by the change should be involved in planning for it. People don’t resist what they create.
Too simple for our complex world?
But is Lewin’s model unfit for our complex world of constant and rapid change? The implication of his Refreeze stage is that the new status quo will be around for a long period.
That’s clearly not how the modern world works. It can be argued, however, that now more than ever Lewin’s certainties are useful.
When people realise that something is going to change they have to cope with strong emotions such as denial, impatience and doubt. So in today’s times of continual change, a Refreeze stage is actually essential to prevent them falling into limbo, a “transition trap” where they don’t know what to do.