Unfreezing: A Simple Starting Place for Kicking Off Organizational Change - Part 1
Change is hard, and in the current days of rapid technological advances and COVID-19, we are all navigating a significant amount of change on a daily basis, both personally and professionally. If it is overwhelming to make a change for ourselves in our personal lives, it stands to reason that it is even more overwhelming for an organization to make a change. An organization is made up of multiple individuals, who will each have their own relationship with the status quo and will respond to changes to it in their own way. This is what makes change dynamic instead of linear: it involves people, their thoughts and feelings about how things are now, their motivations to change or resist change, and the resulting actions they take (or do not take). The actions people take (or don’t) then change or protect the status quo, which kicks off the cycle again, across all members of the group. The final state, therefore, cannot be completely understood on day 1, because that understanding simply doesn’t exist yet on day 1.
Introducing Lewin’s 3 Step model
It is much easier to kick off a significant change - and get some traction - if you have a simple, flexible change management framework to get you started. There are many to choose from, but I would be hard-pressed to find a simpler framework than the 3-Step model for change that Kurt Lewin proposed all the way back in 19472,3. The 3 Steps are:
Lewin used the metaphor of an ice cube in naming the steps. In order for an ice cube to change its form, it first must unfreeze. As water, it can flow, change, and move. When it is in the desired shape, it can be refrozen into that new shape.
In this blog post, we will begin to explore the first step: Unfreezing. The other steps, and more details about an approach to unfreezing, will be explored in future posts.
One Important Note First
One major criticism of the 3-Step model is that it is too simplistic and linear for the kind of dynamic digital transformation required today. Ultimately, this is true, but I would argue that these qualities make it a good starting place for many organizations just getting started at managing change with intention. Teams and organizations starting with the 3-Step model will often move to a different model when they have reached a critical mass of understanding regarding the need for a more dynamic approach. In fact, sometimes a robust, dynamic change management model is actually the initial goal of the 3-Step process! (How is that for meta?)
Unfreezing: Preparing to Change
The goal of the Unfreezing step is to prepare the organization for change. This preparation involves three key processes:4
- Challenging or breaking down belief or reliance on the status quo
- Inciting the motivation to change
- Creating an environment of psychological safety to support the change
Unfreezing is often considered the most uncomfortable part of change, because it means challenging the status quo and suggesting there is a better way of doing something.
Simply stated, change is personal! When we work very hard and care about what we do, critical feedback about how we can do better is not always welcomed initially; we have a natural tendency to defend the way we do things. Sometimes we defend the status quo because of a rational fear of the unknown, or to avoid a perceived loss of control or mastery over our work. In particular, high-performing individuals sometimes see the quality of their work as a measure of their personal worth; following that logic, a suggestion that a change is needed can be received as an attack on an individual’s personal worth. Acceptable responses to change run the gamut from enthusiasm to rejection. Nobody is immune to becoming defensive (nor should they be), and negotiating through these natural human responses is a large part of “the work” of change management leaders. Because changing involves trying new things, making mistakes, and learning from them, the importance of psychological safety during the Unfreezing step cannot be overstated.
One Approach to Unfreezing
One way to approach Unfreezing is to level set (first with a team of individuals you hope will drive the change) on where the organization is currently and where you want it to be in terms of a given problem or challenge. This can be accomplished through the following activities:
- Agree on the Problem or Challenge
- Determine Current State
- Determine Desired State
- Determine Gap Between Current State and Desired State
- Identify Path to Desired State
Stay tuned for the follow-up blog post, where each of these activities will be explored in more concrete detail!
1 Burnes, B. (2004). Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to Change: A Re‐appraisal. Journal of Management Studies, 41: 977-1002. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6486.2004.00463.x
2 Lewin, K. (1947a). Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method and reality in social science; equilibrium and social change. Human Relations, 1(1): 5-41.
3 Lewin, K. (1947b). Group decision and social change. Readings in Social Psychology, 330-344.
4 Schein, E.H. (1996). Kurt Lewin's change theory in the field and in the classroom: Notes toward a model of managed learning. Systems Practice, 9, 27–47. doi:10.1007/BF02173417