"Unfreeze - Change - Refreeze": Change Management's Dirty Little Secret

Part 2: Change management needs to change

The bombshell

In part 1 of this article I dropped the bombshell that renowned psychologist Kurt Lewin never said, “unfreeze – change – refreeze”. He never said it, wrote or drew it.

The premise on which nearly every change management model, framework, approach, methodology and guide have been based is pure fiction.

The idea on which most change management textbooks, training courses, certifications and learning programs have been founded is nonsense.

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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” revealed that Kurt Lewin never developed a model known as ‘changing as three steps’ (CATS) and it only took form after his death.[1]

You can read part 1 here.

Part 2 explores the changes that change management need to undertake to remain relevant.  These ideas are explored in detail in my latest book.

The fight

Change management professionals and practitioners need to question everything that has been based on this supposed foundation for change management.

The change management profession is relatively young and this may partially explain why it is still competing for its rightful position of prominence in many organisations and industries. Continuing to base our approaches to change management on a linear three-step model with a defined change start state and end state will lose the fight for that position. 

The profession needs to liberate, innovate, create, experiment, adapt, evolve and transform if it is to have any relevance in a world of rapid change increasing in complexity.

The profession needs to adopt new ways of working which reflect those being adopted across enterprises in response to constant change. To this end, change management needs to become agile, iterative, experimental, adaptive, flexible, intuitive, subjective, collaborative and responsive.

(Please note that the use of the word’ agile’ does not imply change in an ICT context. Agile practices are being adopted in HR, marketing, finance and other parts of the enterprise in response to constant change).

The roles

When change is constant, leading change has to be everyone’s business. 

Traditionally change management has been left in the hands of a few.

This is how the story goes.

One or two change management professionals charged with ‘managing’ the people side of change for the entire enterprise. The best they can do is to choose the largest or biggest impacting change and assign resources to that accordingly. All other changes are left to run their course. As change increases in speed, more and more change initiatives are void of any organisational change management. There is less and less visibility of change management success and therefore it’s perceived value and relevance dwindles.

Sound familiar?

This handful of change management professionals need to start strategizing about the creation of a resilient workforce in the face of constant change and work towards building a culture in which change is everyone’s business. They need to be strategic about change, and enable others to be tactical and operational.

The organisation needs to embrace change like a field sports team. Let’s use a soccer example. Every game the soccer team play is different. The location, ground, pitch, supporters, weather, opposition, game tactics, team composition, can all change. During the game tactics, team structure and numbers, opposition tactics and composition, weather can all change.

The players do not resist the change - they say game on! They are resilient in the face of constant change and they embrace it as their norm. This is how they win the game. 

The players are resilient because they have received, and continue to receive, the training, education, skills, support, practice, resources, and coaching required.

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The two other roles that make this happen are the managers and coaches. 

The managers are our change management professionals, who determine the strategy, the game play, and provide motivation and direction. They ensure all the resources needed to develop resilience are in place. The managers establish an effective coaching network provisioned with organisational change management skills and capability.

The coaches ensure the players are game fit. They continually develop the skills and capabilities of the players. They communicate and direct the game plan. They act as sponsors, advocates, and facilitators. They reinforce constant change as the norm. The coaches are an active coalition of change agents across, and at all levels, of the organisation. Coaches are an integral part of change delivery.

The shift

The biggest shift for many change management professionals will be the move from a tactical and operational role to a strategic one. They have to ‘let go’ and share the knowledge.

The change management professional becomes the team manager, and determines the strategy that will build, sustain and maintain a resilient workforce. 

They cannot embed themselves in every change. This is delegated to the coaches. 

The managers equip the coaches (change agents) with the necessary education, training, resources and ongoing support to be effective. 

Everyone involved with change has to become more adaptable, flexible, agile and more responsive to change. 

Agility is needed by the entire organisation if it is going to respond to the increasing speed, complexity and uncertainty of change. 

Change management professionals and practitioners have to accept that change is not linear. To paraphrase Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, it is not about unfreeze-change-refreeze anymore - it is about constant slush.[2]

The focus

The focus is no longer managing resistance and instead building resilience to constant change.

There will still be resistance to some change but when you have a resilient workforce, resistance takes on a different guise. It is not due to change fatigue, lack of information, unreasoned changes in direction or lack of involvement. 

These conditions are removed. Resistance is the exception and occasionally surfaces due to unforeseen change in conditions noted in transition that now makes a previously sound change into a questionable one.

Focus is on building a workforce that:

·      Accepts ambiguity and embraces uncertainty

·      Acts thoughtfully – assesses and responds rather than reacts

·      Manages emotions

·      Has self-awareness

·      Maintains a positive outlook with realistic optimism

·      Operates with empathy, trust and respect

·      Has a growth mindset

·      Is autonomous and self-managing

This is a resilient workforce.

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The mindset

Rigid and prescriptive frameworks, methodologies and practices are not conducive to the agility, flexibility, experimentation and adaptation needed today. Give them up!

We need to embrace new ways of working (NWoW) and new ways of thinking (NWoT). A fundamental mindset shift is required.

We need to work within guiding principles or guardrails. Just as traffic guardrails keep us on the road and going in the same direction, guiding principles do the same.

Everyone needs the freedom, flexibility and autonomy to respond as needed to rapidly changing conditions. 

If a player on the soccer team had to ask ‘permission’ to take advantage of a change in the opposition and score a goal, the game would never be won!

Freedom and autonomy does not result in chaos. Guiding principles drive the desired behaviours. 

A new way of thinking: Purposeful principles over prescriptive practices.

The tools

The days of tomes with copious pages forming change management strategies and plans are gone. By the time they are created, the change has come and gone and someone is left holding another wasted forest. 

My guidance for tools today is that they need to tick the F.A.S.T.E.R. boxes.


Tools need to be fluid and changeable on fly. As iterative and rapid change occurs, tools such as plans need to be adaptable, flexible and reflect current conditions. 


Tools buried in the bowels of an organisational repository, are not readily or easily accessible. They need to be easy to locate and navigate. They need to be visible. Large displays in high-traffic, high-visibility areas. Easy access via collaboration tools and platforms.


Keep it simple. Tools should be easy to understand, consumed and interpreted in minutes not hours. A plan-on-a-page is far more powerful than a 30-page communication plan. A visual is far more powerful than a page full of words. 


Tools depict an honest picture of the situation. If things are not tracking as expected, say so. Transparency encourages feedback, conversation, creativity and innovation. People cannot help solve a problem if they do not know there is one. When there is transparency, problems are solved quicker and opportunities seized faster.


Evoke a response, emotion, reaction and conversation. Use scorecards and traffic light colours to depict status of actions, progress, readiness, adoption etc. Feedback and conversation will ensue that initiates corrective action but also validates the status displayed.


Tools must convey important information and not just fill empty space. If you have nothing to say then say so! Tools that lack substance will serve no purpose but to weaken interest in the change. 

The choice

Everything written about here is explored in my latest book “Game On! Change is Constant – Tactics to Win When Leading Change is Everyone’s Business”.

This is a pivotal time for the profession, as change will continue to increase in velocity, complexity and uncertainty.

Accepting there is no permanence and it is just constant slush will renew and revitalise the profession.

Seeking the elusive ice cube will ensure the profession dies a slow and painful death.

It is a choice.

The grab

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