Kurt Lewin’s Freeze Phases is one of those models that every change agent and Project Manager should be aware of.
Change is never-ending. Furthermore, it is a necessary part of Project Management. Yet managing it effectively is one of the principal challenges for organizations and their managers. So what is the process to support effective change in the people who make up our organizations?
This was a question addressed by one of the twentieth century’s leading thinkers in workplace psychology: Kurt Lewin. Among his many contributions to our understanding of organizational life is a three-part model of change. It has come to be known as the Freeze Phases model.
In this article, we will cover:
Before we consider Kurt Lewin’s work, let’s address the question of why change should matter to you, as a Project Manager. This video addresses the question of why you need Change Management in your Project Management toolset…
Kurt Lewin did the first systematic work on organizational change. And it remains valid. So, an understanding of this model is vital for any Project Manager who is responsible for a project that will create organizational or cultural change.
And, if you are still unsure what we mean by the term ‘Change Management’, take a look at this video:
Among Kurt Lewin’s many contributions to our understanding of organizational life is a three-part model of change. It has come to be known as the Freeze Phases model.
Lewin regarded us as subject to a range of forces within our environment. He divided these into:
The restraining forces consist of:
Before we can start to change, we need to overcome these restraining forces. Only then can the driving forces can start to take hold.
If you are more of a video person than a reader, this video provides a summary of the rest of this article…
Lewin therefore identified the first phase of change as unfreezing established patterns and structures. We do this by challenging current attitudes and beliefs – even values – and offering alternatives. As a result, people to start to relax from their restraining forces, ready for change. This is not a trivial step. Resistance can be powerful, and people may express their resistance in a less that respectful manner.
As a change leader, you have to be prepared to deal with both:
The secret is to remain open, frank, and respectful. Encourage people to share their concerns and deal with them positively. Recognise that this is a necessary part of the process.
The second phase is changing. In this phase, we lead people through the transition. It is a time of uncertainty and even confusion, as they struggle to create a clear idea of the new thinking that will replace the old.
The plasticity of response means that good leadership is essential. The alternative is that people will follow whatever weak leadership they can find. Hence our susceptibility to gossip and rumor in times of change. This means your change team needs to provide a constant stream of accurate and reliable information. Failing to do so will leave a gap that the rumor mill will work hard to fill.
Eventually, a new understanding will emerge. Lewin’s third phase is freezing (sometimes refreezing) the new ways of being into place, to establish a new mindset. During this phase, people adapt to the changed reality. They start to find ways to take advantage of the opportunities it offers. Alternatively, they make a decision to opt out of the change and move on.
This is the stage where your team needs to offer practical help and support. This may include things like:
Note that Lewin’s use of the term ‘phases’ doesn’t mean he was referring to three static stages.
When he first described his Freeze Phases model, Lewin was clear that the phases represent parts of a journey; a continuous process. However, his use of the term ‘phases’ has led to some false interpretations that he was referring to three static stages. This is probably the reason why this excellent model has suffered a degree of neglect.
However, we might equally argue that his thinking is in rude health. In his 1980 book, ‘Transitions‘, and his subsequent (business-focused) book, ‘Managing Transitions’, William Bridges articulated a similar three-stage model of transitions. His stages were:
Whilst Lewin’s work is rarely read, Bridges’ books have been influential in the last 40 years. They are excellent, and give readers practical advice on how to support people through each stage of their transition.
The freeze phases model is immensely valuable.
Because it focuses us on how to move people through change, it complements nicely Scott and Jaffe’s model of how people respond to imposed change.
Furthermore, Lewin’s Freeze Phases model has the two principal merits of a good model:
Lewin’s model was the first systematic work on organisational change. Yet it remains valid, So it is a good starting point for designing yor change process. Therefore, an understanding of this model is vital for any Project Manager who is responsible for a project that will create organizational or cultural change.
There are many models of change that can be helpful for Project Managers to understand. Please do tell us about your favorites – or your experience with change, in the comments below.
For more information on working with Organizational Change:
And, if you want the full package, we have a course, ‘Managing and Leading Change’…
Change is an inevitable consequence of projects. And, as a Project Manager, you’ll soon be called to lead it.
To do so, you’ll need practical tools and models…
This course will give you the tools and models you’ll need – and the understanding that will allow you to use them effectively.
NOTE: Readers of this article can get a 30% discount by using the coupon code LEWIN30 at checkout.
Kurt Lewin articulated his Freeze Phases model in the paper ‘Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method and reality in social science; social equilibria and social change’, in the journal Human Relations (June 1947 vol. 1 no. 1, pp5-41).
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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