“Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze”: Change Management’s Dirty Little Secret
Part 1: The Lewin Lie
It will come as a shock to many change management professionals that Kurt Lewin never said, “unfreeze – change – refreeze”.
Yes – you read that correctly. He never said it, wrote it or drew it.
The change model that we pull out of our toolbox professing it to be the cornerstone model for understanding change developed by psychologist Kurt Lewin back in the 1940s is poppycock.
The analogy of an ice cube being melted (unfreeze), moulded into a different shape (change) and then solidified again into the desired shape (refreeze) is utter nonsense as a metaphor for change.
Despite this rigid idea of a linear approach to change having no place in today’s world of complex and constant change; it never had a place in Lewin’s world either.
It is pure fiction.
Extensive and in-depth research by Stephen Cummings, Todd Bridgman and Kenneth G. Brown entitled “Unfreezing change as three steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s legacy for change management” reveals that Kurt Lewin never developed a model known as ‘changing as three steps’ (CATS) and it only took form after his death.
The research paper is worthy of a read and I encourage you to do so. Not only do you gain a comprehension of the revelation contained within it but also an understanding of how an idea such as CATS could gain momentum, evolve to form the foundation of the change management industry today, and be attributed to a man who would never have held such a ‘simplistically ordered world view.’
It is not my intent, or purpose, to reproduce the research paper here. I would rather just provide a few extracts.
“Having searched Lewin’s publications written or translated into English (67 articles, book chapters and books), the Lewin archives at the University of Iowa, and the archives at the Tavistock Institute in London where Human Relations was based, we can find no other origin for CATS.”
“Lewin never wrote ‘refreezing’ anywhere.”
“Lewin never presented CATS in a linear diagrammatic form and he did not list it as bullet points.”
“CATS is claimed to be one of Lewin’s most important pieces of work, a cornerstone, which it was not. Lewin is claimed to have developed a three-step model to guide change agents, which he did not.”
“This foundation of change management has less to do with what Lewin actually wrote and more to do with others’ repackaging and marketing.”
I believe this research is one of the most refreshing things to happen to the change industry. It should serve as a wake-up call for a renewed perspective on how we lead change.
Lewin has been subject to criticism over the years for over-simplifying the change process. As Lewin never proposed a linear model for change or a three-step process, this criticism is clearly unfounded.
The whole simplicity of ‘unfreeze – change – refreeze’ contradicts Lewin’s ‘detailed empirically-based theorizing of ‘quasi-equilibrium’, which is explained in considerable depth in Field Theory and argues that groups are in a continual process of adaptation, rather than a steady or frozen state.”
Lewin studied philosophy and psychology. His history, research, writings and work repudiate any assumption that Lewin would have such a simplistic view of change. He was a man “lauded for his thorough experimentation and desire to base social psychology on firm empirical foundations.”
Before the 1980s not many people had heard of CATS. By the end of the 1980s it had become the basis of understanding in an emerging and fast growing profession – change management - and falsely accredited to Lewin.
The reality is that change is not linear and an organisation does not have a ‘frozen’ state and remain in that ‘natural’ condition until a change agent comes along with the blowtorch to disrupt the status quo. The organisation has no ‘permanent’ state.
The reality is that change does not look like this….
Change looks like this….
Every organisation is made up of many moving and interwoven parts, which are all changing and evolving at the same time yet at different rate and pace. Change has no defined start and end state. The organisation is dynamic and in constant flux.
The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) of change happening at an ever-increasing pace is the new reality.
Just like we cannot control the weather, we cannot control change. We can try and predict what might happen but there will always be changes that we did not foresee.
The business imperative today is to meet ever-changing consumer and customer demands, be responsive and adaptive, be agile and quick, be alert and prepared, and change by rapid iteration and without hesitation. Whether in a commercial or non-commercial context, competitiveness is key. If you cannot deliver the right product or service, with the right value, fast enough, someone else will.
Change is constant.
Kurt Lewin has been considered the founding father of change management with the proposed ‘unfreeze – change – refreeze model.’
When you look at the change management models, programs, approaches, theories, and guidance that exist today, you can reduce most of it back to the CATS model.
Many change management texts introduce the stages of organisational change using the CATS model at the core and use it to structure the ensuing dialogue – in three steps.
The research paper referenced in this article includes a diagram (CATS as a grand foundation) that shows how Lewin’s three-phase model has been used as the basis for other change models.
The diagram is reproduced below.
Taking a similar approach I have mapped additional change models and approaches onto the Lewin ‘foundation’.
This is not a comprehensive list of all change management models in existence but includes the most commonly referenced.
As can be seen from the research diagram and the table I have collated, Lewin’s CATS model has taken on a life of its own.
In terms of implications, there are two ways this could go.
We can continue to blindly accept CATS as the fundamental approach to managing change. We can cling onto it as our foundation and continue to attempt to apply a three-step linear process to a world in which change is anything but simple and one-dimensional.
Or, we can embrace the opportunity brought about by this research and start to question the supposed foundation and innovate as a result. We can accept that we need new ways of working and new ways of thinking in a world of change that is increasing in speed and complexity. We can transform our approaches, methods, tools and frameworks into concepts that are the embodiment of flexibility, adaptability, agility and continual deviation.
We can choose to liberate our unquestioning beliefs of the past and think differently for the future of change management.
The challenge is the disruption – perceived or real – that this realisation brings to the change management industry.
The field of change management has primarily been built on a fictional notion.
Management textbooks, frameworks, models, education and training programs, articles have been established on the CATS premise.
Academics, consultants, leaders, managers, publishers, practitioners have used CATS as a tool to lead change.
There are so many stakeholders invested in CATS and the idea that this so-called ‘foundation’ is without substance will be disturbing.
I believe there are many key players in this industry that are already struggling to marry their change models and frameworks into an ever changing and evolving world of digital disruption.
They are defending their realms but the walls are starting to crack. The walls are progressively cracking under newly introduced pressures because the foundation was never stable in the first place.
Change management needs to change.
In part 2 of this article, I will explore the changes the industry needs to undergo if it is to retain any relevance in a world undergoing rapid transformation.
Change management is still a relatively young industry but is in serious danger of early demise unless it is ready to respond to its mid-life crisis.