Lewin's Three Step Model

Planned Approach

Overview of Kurt Lewin's Three Step Model

Kurt Lewin, whom is considered the father of “change processes”, proposed a general framework for understanding organizational change Opens in new window, as he identified three phases—unfreezing, moving, and refreezing—in initiating and establishing any change.

Kurt Lewin (1958) postulated that in many cases change Opens in new window was very short-lived and after a period of time group-behavior reverted back to its previous pattern. He conceived change as modification of those forces keeping a system’s behavior stable.

Specifically, a particular set of behaviors at any moment in time is the result of a change issue held in equilibrium by the interaction of two opposing or conflicting sets of forces, namely:

  • the driving forces pushing to promote change, and
  • restraining forces striving to maintain the status quo.

When both sets of forces are about equal, current behaviors are maintained in what Lewin termed a state of quasi-stationary equilibrium.

To move from this equilibrium—to overcome the pressures of both sets of forces—unfreezing is necessary. In other words, for any change to take place, the driving forces must supersede the restraining forces, thereby shifting the equilibrium. Unfreezing, therefore, can be achieved in one of three ways:

  1. Increasing the driving forces, which direct behavior away from the status quo.
  2. Reducing the restraining forces, which hinder movement from the existing equilibrium.
  3. A third alternative is to combine the first two approaches.

For example, the level of performance of a work group might be stable because group norms maintaining that level are equivalent to the supervisor’s pressures for change to higher levels. This level can be increased either by changing the group norms to support higher levels of performance or by increasing supervisor pressures to produce at higher levels.

Lewin suggested that decreasing those forces maintaining the status quo produces less tension and resistance than increasing forces for change and consequently is a more effective change strategy. Lewin viewed this change process as consisting of the following three steps:

  1. unfreezing the status quo or present state
  2. movement to a new state, and
  3. refreezing the new change (state) to make it permanent.
  1.   Unfreezing of the status quo

Unfreezing of the status quo, which is considered the equilibrium state, is necessary to generate awareness of the need for change and to motivate people in order to prepare them for the change through discontinuation of the old practices, attitudes, tendencies, or behaviors. The objective here is to add new forces to direct behavior away from the status quo and remove some of the restraining forces that perpetuate the current behavior.

Unfreezing is sometimes accomplished through a process of psychological disconfirmation. By introducing information that shows discrepancies between behaviors desired by organization members and those behaviors presently exhibited, members can be motivated to engage in change activities.

  1.   Movement to a new state

Movement to a new state, which is the second step, involves changing what needs to be changed. A concise view of the new state is needed to achieve this, thus clearly distinguishing the gap between the current state and the new state. This step shifts the behavior of the organization, department, or individual to a new level. It involves intervening in the system to develop new behaviors, values, and attitudes through changes in organizational structures and processes.

  1.   Refreezing the new state

Finally, refreezing, which is the final step, is very crucial to sustaining the new state after it has been implemented. Once the consolidation change has been implemented, if it is to be successful, the new state needs to be refrozen so that it can be sustained over time.

Unless this last step is taken, chances are that the change will be short-lived and the organization’s members will attempt to revert to the previous equilibrium state. The objective of refreezing, then, is to stabilize the organization at a new state of equilibrium by balancing the driving and restraining forces. It is frequently accomplished through the use of supporting mechanisms that reinforce the new organizational state, such as organizational culture, rewards, and structures.

According to the Lewin’s three step theory, driving forces help to initiate and push the change in the desired direction, while restraining forces work to constrain or reduce the driving forces or direct them in the opposite direction. Change does not occur when these two forces are in equilibrium.

In order to shift the equilibrium toward the direction of the planned change, the driving forces must either be increased or constraining forces removed.

By diagnosing the change situation in terms of driving and restraining forces, a basis can be reached for developing action plans to implement the desired change (Hayes, 2002).

Not surprisingly, Lewin’s highly influential model continues ‘to be a generic recipe for organizational development’ (Weick and Quinn, 1999, p.363), and it has been reformulated and recast in many forms (McWhinney, 1992). For example, the eight-phase model of Cummings and Huse (1989) and the four-phase model of Bullock and Batten (1985) are attempts to extend Lewin’s model to enhance its practical application.

See also:
  1. T. R. Ramanathan, The Role of Organisational Change Management in Offshore Outsourcing ..., (p.30-31) Lewin's Three Step Model
  2. Harsh Pathak, Organizational Change, (p.326) Lewin's Three Step Model.