What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Lewin’s Change Model? Everything You Need to Know
One of the constants in any business is the need to regularly evolve – to change. This may be due to advances in technology, the growth of a company, or the changing demands of consumers.
In order to successfully change from the “current state” to the “desired state,” it’s helpful to apply a change management methodology, such as the Kurt Lewin’s change theory.
The Kurt Lewin model of change management includes a 3-stage process that many companies find simple to understand and implement. It’s one of several change management frameworks that organizations can use as a roadmap for change.
Alongside Lewin’s change management model, you’ll also find other methodologies like the Prosci ADKAR model, Kotter’s theory, The McKinsey 7-S model, and others.
How do you know if Kurt Lewin’s model is the best one for your change project? Will it provide you with all the steps you need for success and foster a positive environment for employees and other stakeholders?
Advantages and Disadvantages of Lewin’s Change Model
In this article, we’ll explain Kurt Lewin change theory and discuss the pros and cons of Lewin’s change model methodology. You’ll also find answers to frequently asked questions about Lewin’s three-step model, such as:
- What is the Kurt Lewin change model?
- What are the three steps for Lewin’s model for change?
- What is the most difficult stage of the change process?
- What is Lewin’s Force Field Analysis?
- What are the pros and cons of Lewin’s change model?
- How does Lewin’s 3 step model compare to other change models?
What You’ll Accomplish
This article on the pros and cons of Kurt Lewin model of change examples will give you an understanding of the Kurt Lewin change management theory and Lewin’s 3 step change model.
You’ll also find a comparison between the Kurt Lewin three-step model and the Kotter Model, as well as between ADKAR and Lewin’s 3 stage model.
By the end, you should have a pretty good understanding of the Kurt Lewin change theory and whether or not it’s a good fit for your change project needs.
What is Kurt Lewin Change Model?
Kurt Lewin is often recognized as one of the pioneers of social psychology. He emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s from Germany and is the person behind Lewin’s three-stage model for change management.
Kurt Lewin’s 3 stage model of change focuses on the transitions needed by people that are impacted by the change, comparing them to the freezing and unfreezing of water.
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Kurt theorized that to begin a successful change project, people need to be jolted out of their current equilibrium so they can transition to the new state of being, which is the post-change state or desired state.
While this may initially cause people to push back against change and show resistance to moving from the current status quo, the Kurt Lewin 3 step model is designed to move an organization’s team past that initial resistance.
Kurt Lewin described the behavior in his model as “a dynamic balance of forces working in opposing directions.”
Part of the Kurt Lewin change management model includes the use of Lewin’s Force Field Analysis, which is designed to gauge the force against change and the force for the change. Lewin’s stages of change help organizations understand how to create a larger force for change, which will then eventually move everyone to the new change successfully.
The Kurt Lewin change management model includes three stages, which we’ll get into shortly. Each of those stages includes steps to move each person through the stage.
When Was Kurt Lewin’s Change Theory Developed?
Kurt Lewin’s change theory was published in 1947. His work in psychology and how it relates to businesses is often cited in a variety of areas.
For example, the term “group dynamics” was coined by Lewin as a way to describe how individuals in groups react to changing environments. He also created a psychological equation that states that behavior is a function of the person in their environment.
This work in behavior and environmental dynamics is reflected in Lewin’s change management model.
What Are the Three Steps of Lewin’s Model for Change?
Now that you have some background on where the Kurt Lewin model originated and the key theories behind it, let’s get into the three steps at the heart of Lewin’s stages of change.
You’ll see that these are taken from two states of matter, liquid and solid. In Kurt Lewin’s model, he uses the states of water to illustrate his change management philosophy.
In part, this is because of the way that water can be both solid and immovable and also fluid and malleable. Water can both wear away at mountains over time to shape them, and also have its path changed by force using dams or pipes.
In Lewin’s 3 step model, this is similar to how people can be a restraining force for change, keeping change from happening, and they can also be moved in a positive direction towards the change by a driving force.
As we delve further into Kurt Lewin’s change theory, you’ll see that force plays a large part in how he envisioned what was needed to change behaviors for successful change adoption.
Many businesses that choose to use Lewin’s three-step model do so because it’s easily visualized by this representation of three stages.
What are the 3 Stages of Change?
Kurt Lewin’s 3 step change model is referred to as: Unfreeze, Change, Freeze.
Some people will refer to the last stage in Lewin’s 3 stage model as Refreeze, but the concept is the same.
Kurt Lewin’s 3 step change model
To get into a mindset that will help us explore the Kurt Lewin model of change examples further, let’s do a visualization:
Say you had a large block of ice that needed to be changed from one solid block into several round ice spheres.
To get the ice through that change, you would first need to unfreeze it; then you would need to go through the process of pouring the melted ice into several molds to change it into spheres. Finally, you would need to freeze the water into ice once again to get it to stay in the new shape.
Kurt Lewin’s change management theories of change take people in an organization through that same process of unmolding old behaviors, training new behaviors, and finally, reinforcing those new behaviors so they’ll become the new equilibrium.
Stage 1 of Lewin’s Change Model: Unfreeze
Let’s go a bit deeper into the Kurt Lewin three-step model; we’ll start with the first stage.
In the Unfreeze stage of Lewin’s three-stage model, you’ll address existing behaviors and why they need to be changed. This will involve moving people from the status quo to your desired future state.
This stage can be the most difficult because it will involve changing things people are doing, and they may not want to change or understand why it’s necessary.
Lewin’s 3 stage model of change includes various activities that you undertake in each of the three stages to move you through.
Following, are the steps typically done in the Unfreeze stage of the Kurt Lewin 3 step model.
Determine the Need for Change
In this step, you detail out why change is happening. What is the reason everyone is going to change from the status quo? What is the benefit to the organization? To each individual?
You need to identify these answers because they’re going to be the tools you use to help “unfreeze” people from their current behaviors and convince them to move to the new ones.
Gather Leadership Support
The Kurt Lewin change management model emphasizes the need to get leadership on board with a change because they’re going to be the ones to address staff concerns and help drive the change down through the organization.
Develop Change Strategy & Communication Plan
You’ll do your planning and strategizing in the Unfreeze stage, so you can move successfully through the next part of Lewin’s change model, which is the Change stage.
Planning should include a detailed change roadmap of activities that the change management team will undertake to move everyone from the current state to the future state. This step is one of the most important in the Kurt Lewin Change model.
Manage Employee Resistance & Reservations
The key part of the “unfreezing” happens in this stage of Lewin’s change management model because it’s about addressing staff resistance to the change.
There are many different reasons that people will resist change, and they’re all very personal. In order to successfully move through the Kurt Lewin model for change management, you need to be receptive to change resistance and have the right “forces” to move people past resistance to an acceptance state.
It’s in this step that you’ll use Lewin’s Force Field Analysis. We’ll get into this in more detail after we go through each stage in Lewin’s three-step model. Briefly, it’s a method you’ll use to identify restraining forces (obstacles) and balance them with driving forces (positive movement).
Stage 2 of Lewin’s Change Model: Change
Next, we move into the transition, or Change stage, of Kurt Lewin’s model for change management. By this stage, everyone should be “unfrozen,” meaning they’re receptive to the idea change and understand why it’s happening.
This is where all your planning and preparation from stage 1 goes into action. Here are the various steps that will take you through this stage.
Communication, as you go through the Change stage, is critical if you want to successfully implement the Kurt Lewin change theory.
When people are left in the dark, they can start to assume the worst. e.g., “Why am I not hearing about training? Am I being left out or demoted?”
Things can also easily go off the rails if you’re not communicating with your leadership supporters or change champions because they won’t know what’s expected of them.
Just because you’ve passed the Unfreeze stage in Kurt Lewin’s change theory model, doesn’t mean everyone is completely unfrozen. You may still face resistance, and it can take the form of misinformation, such as, “This change is going to make things worse!” or “We’re only changing because the boss’s son wanted to.”
Address misinformation quickly and clearly to keep your project on track.
Encourage & Inform Leadership
Having leadership onboard and helping drive the change is a positive force you need to successfully transition. In this step within the Change stage of Lewin’s 3 step model, you’ll want to ensure you’re continually encouraging leadership through both engagement and regular status updates.
Engage Employees in Your Change Plan
Stay engaged with the employees going through your change plan because they can make or break the success of the project. This can include getting feedback to see how training is going or asking change champions to let you know if anyone in their department is struggling with the change.
Kurt Lewin model of change examples that are successful incorporate engagement throughout the change process so everyone feels heard and concerns are addressed.
Stage 3 of Lewin’s Change Model: Freeze
When you’re studying Kurt Lewin change management models, you’ll see that the third stage, Freeze, is just as important as the first two. If you don’t reinforce the new state of behavior, there’s a good chance that users may go back to the “old way” of doing things.
Just imagine that ice visualization again that we discussed earlier in our article on Lewin’s 3 step change model. If you “unfreeze” the ice and then pour it into molds, it can’t keep that shape once the mold is taken off unless you “freeze” it once again.
What the Freeze stage of Lewin’s 3 stage model does is make the new behaviors (post change) the new status quo for your organization and employees.
Here are the steps you’ll take in the Freeze stage.
Offer Training & Support
If users hit a road bump a few weeks after your change “go-live” date, they need someone they can go to for help. Otherwise, they could fall back into old behaviors because they don’t know what else to do.
The Kurt Lewin three-step model is only successful if users get the reinforcement that they need to Freeze the new behaviors and become as familiar with them as they were their old ones.
Promote Ways to Sustain the Change
If everyone gets on board with the success of a change, then sustaining that change will be much easier.
Some of the things you can do in this step of Lewin’s three-stage model are:
- Ensure leaders are modeling the new behaviors for employees
- Create a feedback process so any kinks can be worked out
- Create a rewards system for successful users/departments
Invite everyone to celebrate the win and their contribution to the organization’s success.
What is Lewin’s Force Field Analysis?
One of the major steps that you’ll undertake in the first stage of Lewin’s three-stage model is to go through a Force Field Analysis.
Lewin once stated in the publication, Resolving Social Conflicts and Field Theory in Social Science, “To bring about any change, the balance between the forces which maintain the social self-regulation at a given level has to be upset.”
This is a basic tenant of Lewin’s 3 stage model of change, that the force to resist change needs to be broken up in order for the positive force driving change to win the day.
Prior to the change, you can imagine the force field – or balance of the two forces – to be at equilibrium. Everyone is doing what they always do because the change hasn’t been introduced yet.
The two types of forces described in the Kurt Lewin 3 step model are:
- Restraining Forces (resistance to the change)
- Driving Forces (positive forces for the change)
When you initially introduce the idea that you want to change the organization from the present state (equilibrium) to a desired state (post change), the equilibrium will be broken. But in which direction?
The direction you want to go is toward the change, so you want to ensure your Driving forces are stronger than the Restraining forces against change.
You use the Ken Lewin change management Force Field Analysis as a guide to help you identify the different forces that are impacting user behavior either for or against the change.
For example, some Restraining Forces for employees might be:
- Worry that they’ll be asked to do more after the change for the same pay
- Not knowing why things are changing
- Being afraid they won’t have the skills to adopt the new process
Driving forces that you would use to oppose those could be:
- Clarity on how new tools will mean tasks won’t take as long
- Explanations of the reasons for the change as well as telling employees how it will benefit them
- Reassuring employees with a comprehensive training program
Is Lewin’s Change Management Model Still Valid?
Since Lewin’s stages of change were created, other newer change management models have come along that take different approaches to organizational change.
This has led some to believe that the Kurt Lewin change management model is no longer valid. They feel that Lewin’s change theory too rigid and doesn’t reflect the fast pace of business today, where it’s almost always in a constant state of change.
However, the basics of the Kurt Lewin change model are still very much valid. This is because it focuses on human behavior and psychology, which tends to stay the same, even as the world evolves around us.
Additionally, the psychological equation that is very much a part of Lewin’s change management model still bears true today, which is that behavior is a function of the person in their environment. Behaviors can be changed to reflect a new working environment.
What is the Most Difficult Stage in the Change Process?
The most difficult stage of the change process in the Kurt Lewin Model, and really for any change methodology you use, is the initial stage.
The initial stage of change management is when you’re first introducing the change to impacted individuals and when you’ll generally receive the most resistance.
This is also when plans are beginning to take shape, so it may be hard for stakeholders to get a full picture of how the organization will be better off after the change.
When you’re working with Kurt Lewin’s model of change management, the Unfreeze stage would be considered the most difficult one out of the three.
How Do You Use Lewin’s Change Theory?
The Kurt Lewin change theory is one of the least complicated, which can be both a positive and a negative.
Since Lewin’s three-step model is fairly straight forward, it’s pretty easy for anyone to follow and use for their change management program. However, you may have to fill in some of the steps with your own planning and strategizing.
You can use Kurt Lewin’s change theory by following the three stages of change – Unfreeze, Change, and Freeze – along with the steps within each of those stages to guide your organization through change.
Pros: What is the Advantage of Using Lewin’s Three-Phase Model for Organizational Change?
Should you use Lewin’s 3 step model over another newer change management framework? What are the pros and cons of Lewin change model?
As with any methodology, there are positives and negatives to consider, and this one is no different. There are both advantages and disadvantages of Lewin’s change model.
Pros & Cons of Lewin’s Change Model
Here are some of the pros of using Lewin’s change model.
It’s Easy to Understand
Some change frameworks can take a lot of training to learn, and people can easily get lost within a sea of acronyms. Lewin’s change theory is pretty straight forward, with three main stages to follow and a few steps within each one.
The Force Field Analysis in Lewin’s change model is also a simple concept that people can catch onto easily and begin using right away.
It Focuses on Behaviors
The behavioral psychology used in the Kurt Lewin change model gets to the heart of what causes people to either resist or support change. This focus on people is actually in agreement with many other change models out there that also focus on the human element of change.
The Model Makes Sense
When going through the Kurt Lewin change model, the Unfreeze, Change, Freeze logic makes sense to many people. Its simplicity helps people get a better understanding of change management as a whole without getting lost in a lot of industry jargon or complicated steps.
Why is Lewin’s Model Good?
The Kurt Lewin change model is good and still used all these years later because it’s based upon sound behavioral psychology that is designed to understand why people resist change and put the forces in place to drive people to change acceptance and support.
One of the biggest reasons that Lewin’s change management model is good is that it uses clear concepts and illustrations that make change management easy for many to understand.
Cons: What is Lacking from the Kurt Lewin Change Model?
Before you decide to adopt the Kurt Lewin model, you’ll also want to consider the disadvantages, because not everyone thinks this is the best change model out there.
Here are some of the cons of Lewin’s change theory.
It’s Not Detailed Enough
Some think that Lewin’s change management model is a little too simple. The steps within each phase can be interpreted in different ways, and it’s often necessary to “fill in the blanks” using another change management model.
It’s Too Rigid & Doesn’t Reflect Modern Times
The Freeze stage of Kurt Lewin’s model sometimes comes under scrutiny by those that say it’s too rigid because it “freezes” behaviors that will only need to be unfrozen again in the near future due to how fast technology advances and causes companies to constantly change to keep up. They feel the last stage should be more flexible.
It can be argued that the Kurt Lewin change theory may be somewhat outdated since it was developed in 1947 well before technology became such a central part of today’s workplaces.
It Can Be Seen as Combative, Rather Than Nurturing
With the emphasis on breaking up the equilibrium during the Unfreezing process, and basically “shaking things up,” Lewin’s three-step model can be seen as combative. Instead of fostering a nurturing change environment, some say it puts too much focus on the two opposing forces fighting to gain the advantage.
What is the Difference Between Lewin’s Model and Kotter’s Model?
There are some key differences between the Kotter model of change management and the Kurt Lewin model.
The Kotter model focuses heavily on getting stakeholder “buy-in” to a change and enlisting a volunteer army, where Kurt Lewin’s model is focused on the forces that guide behavior and reducing the restraining force while increasing the driving force.
Another major difference is in the complexity. Kurt Lewin’s change theory has three stages. Kotter’s model has eight steps that change managers must go through to complete the change.
Creating a sense of urgency about the change is also a difference in Kotter’s model, where Lewin’s three-step model is more about understanding why the organization is changing so that it can be communicated to employees to gain support.
What is the Difference Between Lewin’s Change Model and the Prosci ADKAR Model?
ADKAR is a newer model, being created in 2003; thus it came just as technology was being used widely and becoming a major part of the business.
The ADKAR model has five main stages that users must go through to accept change. In this way, both ADKAR and Kurt Lewin’s change theory share a focus on employee behavior as a driver (or barrier) for change.
They differ in that ADKAR is more of a nurturing change model than Lewin’s change theory, which is more focused on using force to move users where you need them to go.
ADKAR is also more complicated and has more concepts to learn than Lewin’s change model. With ADKAR there are five phases for users to pass through as well as a 3-phase process that acts as a roadmap to change planning.
Conclusion – This Year’s Pros and Cons of Lewin’s Change Model
If you’re looking for a change management model that has a low learning curve and is easy to comprehend, then Lewin’s change theory is going to be one of your best options.
The Kurt Lewin change model forgoes the jargon and uses easy to understand concepts, which is one of the reasons it has stood the test of time and is still in widespread use today.
However, with that simplicity can come a few drawbacks. One is that some of the detail that’s lacking in Lewin’s change management model could leave you with holes in your strategy, meaning you may miss something important that could derail the success of your project.
You may also find all the language about “forces” and “breaking equilibrium” in the Kurt Lewin model to be a bit too negative, especially when working with an entirely different generation of employees than Kurt Lewin was studying back in the 1940s.
Whether the pros of Kurt Lewin’s model outweigh the cons will depend upon your organization’s needs. It remains one of the top change management models that’s being used by businesses every day to guide their transitional change projects.
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Authors: Ogbe Airiodion (Senior Change Management Lead) and Francesca Crolley (AGS Lead Writer)
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