If you have a large cube of ice, but realize that what you want is a cone of ice, what do you do? First you must melt the ice to make it amenable to change (unfreeze). Then you must mold the iced water into the shape you want (change). Finally, you must solidify the new shape (refreeze).
Kurt Lewin’s Change Model
Kurt Lewin developed a change model involving three steps: unfreezing, changing and refreezing. The model represents a very simple and practical model for understanding the change process. For Lewin, the process of change entails creating the perception that a change is needed, then moving toward the new, desired level of behavior and finally, solidifying that new behavior as the norm. The model is still widely used and serves as the basis for many modern change models.
By looking at change as process with distinct stages, you can prepare yourself for what is coming and plan to manage the transition – looking before you leap, so to speak. All too often, people go into change blindly, causing much unnecessary turmoil and chaos.
To begin any successful change process, you must first start by understanding why the change must take place. As Lewin put it, “Motivation for change must be generated before change can occur. One must be helped to re-examine many cherished assumptions about oneself and one’s relations to others.” This is the unfreezing stage from which change begins.
This first stage of change involves preparing the organisation to accept that change is necessary, which involves break down the existing status quo before you can build up a new way of operating.
Key to this is developing a compelling message showing why the existing way of doing things cannot continue. This is easiest to frame when you can point to declining sales figures, poor financial results, worrying customer satisfaction surveys, or suchlike: These show that things have to change in a way that everyone can understand.
To prepare the organisation successfully, you need to start at its core – you need to challenge the beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors that currently define it. Using the analogy of a building, you must examine and be prepared to change the existing foundations as they might not support add-on storeys; unless this is done, the whole building may risk collapse.
This first part of the change process is usually the most difficult and stressful. When you start cutting down the “way things are done”, you put everyone and everything off balance. You may evoke strong reactions in people, and that’s exactly what needs to done.
By forcing the organisation to re-examine its core, you effectively create a (controlled) crisis, which in turn can build a strong motivation to seek out a new equilibrium. Without this motivation, you won’t get the buy-in and participation necessary to effect any meaningful change.
After the uncertainty created in the unfreeze stage, the change stage is where people begin to resolve their uncertainty and look for new ways to do things. People start to believe and act in ways that support the new direction.
The transition from unfreeze to change does not happen overnight: People take time to embrace the new direction and participate proactively in the change. In order to accept the change and contribute to making the change successful, people need to understand how the changes will benefit them. Not everyone will fall in line just because the change is necessary and will benefit the company. This is a common assumption and pitfall that should be avoided.
Unfortunately, some people will genuinely be harmed by change, particularly those who benefit strongly from the status quo. Others may take a long time to recognize the benefits that change brings. You need to foresee and manage these situations.
Time and communication are the two keys to success for the changes to occur. People need time to understand the changes and they also need to feel highly connected to the organisation throughout the transition period. When you are managing change, this can require a great deal of time and effort and hands-on management is usually the best approach.
When the changes are taking shape and people have embraced the new ways of working, the organisation is ready to refreeze. The outward signs of the refreeze are a stable organisation chart, consistent job descriptions, and so on. The refreeze stage also needs to help people and the organisation internalize or institutionalize the changes. This means making sure that the changes are used all the time; and that they are incorporated into everyday business. With a new sense of stability, employees feel confident and comfortable with the new ways of working.