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Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze (Kurt Lewin Change Management Model)

What is Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze or Kurt Lewin's change management model?

Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze or Kurt Lewin's change management model is a model to understand and manage organizational change. It aims to understand why change occurs, implement the necessary changes and normalize them in the organization's day-to-day operations. The ultimate goal is to change the status quo with minimal effect on processes or employees, while ensuring maximum ROI.

Kurt Lewin change management model explained

The Lewin change management model is widely used by organizations around the globe. It was created in the 1940s by physicist and social psychologist Kurt Lewin whose background in physics inspired his illustration of social change using a metaphor for an ice block.

The name of the model comes from the idea that an ice block can't be forced into a new shape without breaking. Instead, to achieve a transformation from one shape to another, it must first be melted (unfreeze), poured into a new mold (change) and then frozen again in the new shape (refreeze).

By considering change as a process with three similarly distinct stages, organizations can prepare better for a new status quo. They can minimize potential complexities along the way and design a plan to manage the transition. Following this model also helps organizations adjust to the change and achieve stability while minimizing chaos and discomfort for employees and other stakeholders.

The first unfreezing stage is primarily aimed at creating awareness about the upcoming change. In the change stage, the actual implementation happens to support the transition. In the final refreeze stage, the goal is to achieve stability and equilibrium after the change.

Companies can apply Lewin's change model to change multiple processes or conditions, such as:

  • existing systems, structures or processes;
  • behaviors, attitudes or skills of the workforce; and
  • corporate culture to enable people to work together and collectively pursue the organization's objectives.
Change Management Checklist

The need for Lewin's change management model

Change is inevitable for companies of every size and in every industry. However, many organizations struggle to adapt to upcoming changes. Often, they experience multiple misunderstandings and chaos before they can adjust to the change. Resistance to change is another common problem, even if the potential benefits of the change are known or apparent.

The unfreeze, change, refreeze model is an attempt to manage change by understanding the change process, creating a plan for a smooth transition and overcoming any possible resistance in advance.

The model helps create awareness of the upcoming change and the motivation behind it so everyone affected by it is prepared and can accept what's coming. It also helps create an environment where employees don't look at change as a threat but a way to improve the organization and contribute to its strategic vision.

Three stages of Lewin's change management model

Here's a description of how the three stages in Lewin's unfreeze, change, refreeze model work.

Unfreeze. Before this first stage, there is usually a motivating event that demonstrates a need for change to occur, such as falling profits, a lawsuit or simply employee dissatisfaction. Once the decision has been made that change is needed, a change management strategy has to be communicated throughout the organization to prepare employees for the change.

The organization needs to prepare for the upcoming change by creating awareness about the change while identifying and addressing any potential resistance. Senior leadership and managers should explain to employees why the organization can't continue its current way of doing things.

To support their message, they may refer to existing financial statements, talk about declining sales or explain the problems caused by negative customer reviews. They should also try to address strong emotions such as denial, uncertainty or doubt among the workforce by explaining why the change is required.

Some of the key activities that take place during the unfreeze stage include:

  • examining the existing structures and processes, and determining what needs to change and why;
  • communicating the logic and benefits of the upcoming change to all stakeholders;
  • engaging with the right stakeholders to get their buy-in for the change;
  • framing the motivation for the change in terms of the organization's vision and mission; and
  • addressing employee concerns and getting organization-wide support for a new equilibrium.

Detailed analyses of the current state of the organization and effective communication about the "why" of the change are vital during the unfreeze stage. Gaps in either step may heighten existing resistance and make it more difficult to move to the next step of change implementation.

Change. After the proposed transformation is properly communicated, the next stage is to implement the change as quickly and as seamlessly as possible. In the change stage, the actual changes to the company's organizational structure, business practices, staffing or other areas are implemented. These changes may vary in degree, depending on the company's needs, but they should always be carefully determined with input from employees and other key stakeholders.

Often, people know they must act in a way that aligns with the new direction, but they may struggle to adapt to the new reality. Consequently, it may take time to implement all the required changes.

To minimize roadblocks, preparation during the first stage is vital. Leaders should share all relevant information with the workforce to ease them into the transition and address any problems or challenges early. Clear communication strategy and strong leadership skills are the main pillars of a successful change stage.

Leaders should also take time to explain how the change will benefit employees. During the transition, senior staff members should explain the type and purpose of the change and ensure employees never feel disconnected from the company or the change effort.

It can be helpful to engage with influential stakeholders and get them to act as change evangelists. It's also important to celebrate small victories and visible results so everyone feels involved in the change effort and works as a team to make it happen.

Some of the other important activities that happen during the change stage include:

  • clarification of any misunderstandings or rumors;
  • clear explanation of the effect of a change; and
  • involvement of line managers to provide day-to-day direction.

Refreeze. The final stage is about solidifying the change, so that the modifications made in the second stage are normalized or internalized in the organization's daily activities. This process can be slow because it can take a long time for employees to get used to new practices or procedures.

Refreeze is a crucial stage for ensuring changes last and that the workforce accepts the new status quo. It also prevents employees from going back to older, less-preferred methods that may be detrimental to the organization.

Organizations can adopt both informal and formal mechanisms to freeze and sustain the new changes. The goal is to eliminate any lingering doubt or resistance and ensure complete organization-wide buy-in of the new normal.

Other important activities during the refreeze stage include:

  • offering rewards to reinforce the new state;
  • identifying and eliminating lingering barriers;
  • setting up a feedback system to collect employee comments and address any new issues or concerns;
  • modifying the organizational structure, culture and policies to align with the change and reinforce the new way of working;
  • providing employee training and support to make employees comfortable and eliminate anxiety and doubts; and
  • establishing quantitative metrics to measure success and communicate progress.
business transformation initiatives
Kurt Lewin's Change Management Model can be used to implement business transformation initiatives.

Criticisms of Lewin's change model

Lewin's unfreeze, change, refreeze model is an effective way to manage, communicate and establish change in an organization. However, the model isn't perfect and has received its share of criticism.

One criticism is that it assumes organizations function under static conditions and can thus easily adapt to change and transition to a new status quo. However, modern companies function in highly dynamic and competitive environments characterized by geopolitical, financial, regulatory and security challenges. In such environments, they can't move from one state of stability to another without feeling some negative repercussions related to a change.

The model also doesn't account for the dynamic nature of today's workforces. Employee resistance and uncertainty can be one of the biggest barriers to change. Since the model is very plan-driven, it doesn't pay a lot of attention to these feelings or how employees can affect the change.

Also, not all organizations require incremental change. Some need radical or transformational change to address ingrained issues or increase competitiveness. The model may be too simple and mechanistic to account for these realities or implement the steps required to meet such large goals.

See also: Understand IT change management vs. configuration management and What is enterprise resource planning?

This was last updated in May 2022

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