Kurt Lewin’s change model has three stages: unfreeze (prepare a group to change), change (transition to a new way of working), freeze (sustainably embed the new ways of working). The model is old, but we can still learn from it.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Kurt Lewin’s Three Stage Model of Organizational Change

One down, two to go…

As we explain in our online Udemy course on leading change, Kurt Lewin’s change model has three stages.

These three stages are: unfreeze (prepare a group to change), change (transition to a new way of working), and freeze (sustainably embed the new ways of working).

The model is old, but we can still learn a lot from it, and it is charming in part because of its simplicity.

Stage 1: Unfreeze

Stage one of Kurt’s model says that before we introduce a change, we need to help the people who will experience the change prepare for it. This can be done by increasing their knowledge, capability, motivation, understanding or even emotional preparation and wellbeing.

Stage 2: Change

Once people are ready for change, Kurt moves to stage two, the change itself. Here people transition to new ways of being or doing things. People transition at their own pace, potentially following a change curve. Most people benefit from coaching and other forms of support in the change phase.

Stage 3: Freeze

The last stage of Kurt’s model is “Freeze”. In this stage people embed their new ways of working or being, making them routine and lasting.

Freezing can lock in specific aspects of the current state.

Leading change in line with Lewin’s 3 stage model

Leaders have a role to play in each stage of Lewin’s three stage model of change.

Stage 1: Unfreeze

Leaders can help those who are about to experience change prepare for it by: explaining the need, listening to them, explaining what the future might look like, investing in their wellbeing, investing in their skills and capabilities, building their confidence, helping them feel part of a team and by helping them let go of their current ways of being.

Stage 2: Change

Leaders can help those who are transitioning to new ways of being or doing things by supporting them through the change curve. This may involve listening to them, acknowledging their feelings, helping them explore new ways of doing things, helping them try again when they fail at things and building their confidence as they develop.

Stage 3: Freeze

Leaders have a role to play in sustaining changes and making sure they really stick. This may involve continuing to celebrate success relating to ways of working, reinforcing positive behaviors and actions, coaching for continued behaviors, creating routines to help sustain behaviors and building ways of working into culture.

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Criticisms of the model

Some people currently deride the last stage of this model, arguing that in the modern world the pace of change is so fast that there’s no time to freeze.

Some people can be quite critical of this model.

This misses the point though. It’s very possible to “freeze” one set of changes, particularly relating to the self, while continuing to work on other changes.

Learning More

Organizations often seek to change and improve, and often use organizational development programs to do so. There are many models that seek to explain how change in organizations happens.

To learn more about how we think about and lead organizational change, you can register for our online Udemy course, leading change.

It’s worth noting that there’s a lot of discussion and challenge around organizational change theories. We have several podcasts exploring this, including this one which takes a critical approach to process models of change:

The World of Work Project View

We think that Kurt Lewin is one of the most interesting contributors to the world of work and like nearly everything he has done. This model is no exception. In many ways we actually prefer this model to many of the more recent and more comprehensive models that exist.

The simplicity and humanity of this model makes it an excellent starting point for anyone interested in actually investing the time and effort to achieve lasting, effective, people based change. Unfortunately, this type of change takes time, something many people don’t feel they have.

We do acknowledge though that this model is fairly loose and is not prescriptive, which makes it hard to just pick up and use to deliver change in your organization.

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The contents of this post have been based on interpretations of Kurt Lewin’s original work. There are many of these on the internet. In addition, Edgar Schein has also published some reflections on this topic that may be of interest you. See “Kurt Lewin’s change theory in the field and in the classroom: Notes toward a model of managed learning”.

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