Father of modern understanding

There is no shortage of advice and opinion today on how organisations and individuals change. From mechanical, process-driven 'solutions' to new-age, free-thinking 'evolutions' there will be a theory somewhere that suits your particular preference. Making sense of that is relatively simple – just choose the one you like. Yet, if we are to find value in this plethora of ideas, it is worth stepping back behind the immaculately presented exteriors and looking at how these approaches were built.

Back to the roots

To do this we need to go back to Berlin in the 1920s and the work of Kurt Lewin. Lewin was one of the most straightforward and pragmatic academic thinkers in the field of human change, both individual and collective. He believed there was nothing as practical as a good theory, and that to truly understand something you need to try and change it.

He also believed that the basic model of consultancy was irrevocably flawed in that you cannot separate the notion of diagnosis from the notion of intervention. When we look at today's consultancy bill for the public sector we might ponder, therefore, the likelihood of it offering value for money.

Lewin is the father of our modern understanding of human change: many management theorists, systems thinkers and organisational psychologists claim him as their source of inspiration. However, Germany in the 1930s was a dangerous environment for a Polish Jew and, in order to carry on his work, he went to Iowa, where he carried out groundbreaking research through the second world war and the late 1940s.

His early research involved changing the patterns of diet in society and is therefore particularly relevant to issues, such as obesity, that we face today. In his case the challenge was to decrease wartime America's reliance on high-grade meat by eating increasing quantities of offal.

The outcomes he reached showed the importance of identifying what he described as 'gatekeepers': the people who influence others in making decisions. The problem was 'housewives' who did not wish to be seen buying low standard food, contrary to the long-held belief that it was 'husbands' who would refuse to eat it.

He further found that simply explaining the importance and necessity of the change had little impact, whereas groups of people working with the raw data were much more likely to decide a better course of action, implement it and stay with it. His conclusion was that we are likely to modify our own behaviour when we participate in problem analysis and solution and likely to carry out decisions we helped to make.

This research was replicated in post-war work in manufacturing environments. In applying Lewin's principles to a variety of change situations, groups adopting the process would outperform control groups by at times up to 50%. Lewin died in his late 50s so never perhaps brought his work to the conclusion it deserved.

Key principles

So what were Lewin's underlying principles? As a professor of psychology and key player in the practice of gestalt psychotherapy, Lewin's understanding of how change occurred was at a much deeper level than many of us can attain. His principles have been simplified and codified over time (and their source no longer credited) in the model of change that describes a process of 'unfreeezing' followed by 'restructuring' then 'refreezing'. As ever with such models, they are shorthand for a more complex method and to truly gain their value we must dig a little deeper.


Ed Schein (Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management) was deeply influenced by Lewin. He understood that human change is a profound process that involves painful unlearning without loss of identity and difficult relearning as one attempts to restructure one's thoughts, perceptions, feelings and attitudes. 'Unfreezing' is therefore the critical starting point for change, yet is often overlooked as we plan the processes by which the new solution will take shape. Lewin saw that for people to unfreeze from their current patterns of behaviour, three pre-conditions had to be simultaneously satisfied.

*First, people have to receive what he called 'disconfirming information'. In other words, so long as our leaders are telling the wider world how well we are doing and how, despite difficult external conditions, we have outperformed expectations, the basic precondition for people to change has not been met. In a world where we feel we must satisfy the Audit Commission and our electorates while maintaining staff morale, the chance of lasting change is slim.

An inertia is created built on a façade because auditors, voters and employees are not unaware of the real conditions, despite our insistence on describing them otherwise. John Kotter, the Harvard leadership professor has said that 'too much happy talk from senior management' is one of the major barriers to change.

*Second, simply hearing the real story doesn't unfreeze people – people will often reject the story because they simply don't care. For Lewin, the story had to create 'guilt or survival anxiety'. And more often than not, admitting things are wrong damages self-esteem and identity.

*The third pre-condition was also critical, disconfirming information could also create what he termed 'learning anxiety'. This creates a sense of powerlessness, a feeling that we can't change because we are unable to learn quickly enough how to move into the new environment and adapting poorly often looks more palatable than risking failure in the learning process.

Overcoming learning anxiety is probably the hardest and most critical element in unfreezing.

To give an example, you can tell me that my dancing is awful and I simply don't care (disconfirmation not creating guilt or survival anxiety). You can then tell me that I am dancing on live television this Friday for a new reality TV show. Now I am considering the data differently as the risk of making a fool of myself is very real (survival anxiety). You can also tell me that as part of the package I get lessons from a top professional dancer and perhaps I suddenly discover a desire to dance (overcoming learning anxiety). It is also worth remembering that at this point in the change process I might also run away!


So unfreezing is the most critical and most difficult part of any change process, and also the hardest to achieve as self-esteem and identity hold us so firmly where we are. Yet if we achieve this we still have much to do. Lewin's next stage, 'restructuring', did not mean restructuring our cabinet posts or organisation charts. For him this too had three elements beginning with restructuring our thinking. He called this 'cognitive redefinition' and it is at the heart of much of today's 'systemic thinking'.

The importance of gaining adifferent perspective of the same problem in breaking through to new solutions is now widely understood although much harder in practice. Einstein's much quoted statement that solutions are not found from within the thinking that created the problem is another way of saying the same thing. So critical to moving on once unfreezing has occurred is the need to encounter and engage with others who see the same problem differently.

Lewin then suggested that the next elements were about how we learn, as for him, change was 'managed learning'. The easiest and quickest way to learn in this circumstance was by 'imitation or identification'. Finding others who we respect who do things differently allows us to copy their approaches. This process is very evident today in benchmarking and peer-based learning. It has been adopted wholeheartedly by the sector as its method of learning and yet, as a principle of change, Lewin considered it very dangerous. For him, learning in this way can be shallow and superficial; we have not really internalised what we are being told or attached much personal value to it. Instead it is an easy alternative in a difficult situation that is easily jettisoned or ignored as pressure diminishes.

There is a second problem with peer-based approaches. Unfreezing creates a predisposition to learn, it doesn't say what will be learned. If the solutions do not fit the culture and environment of the problem (and the whole point of local government is that places and their cultures are different) then they are simply not going to work. Solutions that work well in one place do not always work well in another. You can learn things that don't work! More than that, if the peers are all from the same environment (the sector) then there is a real and present risk that we simply recycle the same knowledge without learning anything new.

Kurt Lewin therefore favoured a different means of learning that he called 'scanning'. This meant seeking external sources of data including reading, travel and conversations with people from different backgrounds in order to gain insight into your own situation and adapt accordingly. The problem he saw with peer approaches was that if nobody had scanned appropriately then everyone got sub-optimal data. And if the new behaviour isn't congruent with the personality and experience of the learner then it becomes 'disconfirming' and off we go again.


The final element of Lewin's model is 'refreezing': making things stick. What he found was that working with 'gatekeepers', collectively, through 'scanning' rather than 'identification' creates change that sticks and becomes eventually refrozen into the new norm.

So if we see the need to change behaviour as critical to our new role in a rapidly changing environment then Lewin has much to offer us, whether we wish to see that change in the people who live and work in the places we represent or within our party groups or organisations. It also says that our understanding of the fundamentals of how change occurs needs to grow, and that we place too much reliance on too narrow an element of the process in our existing methodologies.

And, finally, you don't have to agree with the validity of Lewin's theory or the emphasis he places within the various elements. But if you are a leader and therefore responsible for change, you need to have a philosophy that you believe in as to how change works, that you can articulate and that you can test and adapt and evolve as your learning grows around how change works. Because, as Lewin taught us, there is nothing so practical as a good theory.

John Atkinson is Managing Director, Leadership Centre for Local Government. He deals directly with local authorities responsible for ensuring chief executives, the leader or mayor and both their senior teams are given the opportunity to fundamentally shift their thinking on leadership. He defines the scope of the work to be carried out, and he manages and develops the team of advisers who have become experts in working with local authorities, from making an initial assessment of an authority's leadership challenges to facilitating and supporting change and development. He also evaluates the impact and effectiveness of the work. He ran his own very successful leadership development business working with both the public and private sectors, including several of the world's largest businesses. He started his career in the army as a commander of the leadership development wing of the Royal Artillery where he was responsible for officer selection and development of non-commissioned officers.

This paper is based on a session at Leeds Castle for senior political leaders and chief executives from the sector that addressed the nature of behaviour change and the implications of that for today's leaders.

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