Businesses are faced with challenges each and every day, and need to be dynamic in order to meet them. As such, change is a constant, and must be embraced.
But how best to understand and approach transitions within a business? One of the cornerstones is Lewin’s change management model, which is a three-step process for implementing organisational change. This is sometimes known as the unfreeze-change-refreeze model.
- Lewin’s model of change is a three-stage process, likened to unfreezing a block of ice, pouring it into a mould, and refreezing it in a new shape.
- While each stage requires careful management, the first stage is probably the most important, as it requires everybody across the board to understand the need for change, with a view to ultimately embracing it.
- The key is good communication throughout the stages. This will help to empower the team to embrace new ways of working, and ultimately give them the confidence to face further changes in future.
Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist and has been called the ‘founder of social psychology’. He was a forerunner in organisational development, and forged the term ‘group dynamics’, with reference to the behaviour and psychological process found within social groups, or between them.
Lewin developed a model in the 1940s, which is regarded as a cornerstone for understanding organisational change. He saw this as a three-stage process, which he likened to melting a block of ice, and refreezing it in a different shape. The three stages are Unfreeze, Change and Refreeze.
In essence, the success of an organisational change depends on how well the people in the organisation understand:
- The reasons for the change;
- The process of its implementation; and
- What’s expected of them once the change has been made.
Stage #1: Unfreeze
This is probably the most critical stage of the change management process. The aim is to prepare the organisation for the change that’s about to take place.
According to Lewin, change must only happen when there’s a strong motivation to undergo it. As individuals within the organisation will have grown used to the status quo, they will essentially need to be persuaded of the need for it. They will need to be prepared for a new way of doing things, and accept that change is necessary for progress.
Management should communicate the reasons for change to the team.
For example, change might be needed due to declining sales, high staff turnover, or poor customer service feedback. It’s best if the team fully understands that change is required for greater operational efficiency.
This process can be aided by:
- Good communication of the strategy
- Creating a vision for the change
- Getting buy-in from all parties, including senior management
- Encouraging feedback, to help inform the process
Willingness from all parties will mean the process of transition will go more smoothly. Preparation and communication are absolutely key here.
In the analogy, this step is likened to melting ice from its original shape, such as a cube.
Stage #2: Change
When it’s time to implement the change, the organisation enters the second phase – that of transition.
This can be an unsettling period for the team. While the first phase aims to gather support for the change, it’s natural that it will take time for everybody to embrace it completely. But as time goes on, people within the organisation should gradually change their practices and attitudes in line with the new way of doing things.
During the process of change, it will be helpful to:
- Keep up regular communication regarding the benefits
- Explain the impact of the change to members of the team individually
- Be open to questions, which should help to dispel any rumours
- Get everyone involved in the process, so that they feel like part of the change
- Be ready for challenges
In the analogy, this is likened to pouring the melted water into a mould in order to form a new shape.
Stage #3: Refreeze
The third stage of the process is where the change has fully bedded in, and the team are now working in the new way. The key here is that it’s a return to stability.
This is a necessary step because – while it’s accepted that change is inevitable, and new changes are likely to happen again in future – there needs to be a positive affirmation that the change was worthwhile.
At this stage, there should still be support available to help the team internalise the new way of doing things.
To ensure the change continues to be successful, it will be helpful to:
- Provide ongoing training and support for individuals in their new roles
- Identify challenges to sustaining the change, and address them
- Encourage the team to provide feedback
- Communicate any benefits or successes already achieved due to the change
It’s also important to be upbeat, and celebrate the implementation of the change. This helps to reinforce the original reason for doing it, and should hopefully encourage the team to feel positively about the continuing success of the organisation.
In the analogy, this is likened to freezing the mould to get ice formed in a new shape, such as a sphere.
Any organisational change can be viewed through the lens of Lewin’s model. Maybe one team needs to be absorbed into another. Perhaps you need to migrate to a new content management system. You might even be moving office, or increasing staff’s ability to work remotely.
Whatever the change your organisation may go through, using Lewin’s model is easy to apply, and effective. In essence, the better prepared your team is, the more likely you are to have a frictionless process.
As such, it’s a useful model for leaders and managers to apply to improve workplace performance. It’s to everyone’s benefit for big organisational changes to go as smoothly as possible, and for kinks to be ironed out ahead of time.
A successful change can bring about a new confidence in the staff. Once things have settled down, and there are demonstrable benefits to having made the change, the team is more likely to be willing to do it again when the time comes.
There may also be personal benefits for the staff. For example, new roles may bring about new skills being learnt, and new experience under the belt. If it’s likely to benefit team members’ CVs, for instance, it’s worth communicating this to them at the first stage.
Some people within the organisation may be put at a disadvantage by the change, especially if they originally benefitted from the status quo. It’s likely to be harder to get such individuals to accept the change, and fully buy into it.
However, accepting that change is inevitable is the first step to embracing it. And using Lewin’s model is a simple yet effective tool to help you transition smoothly to a new way of working.
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