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 organisations and their managers. So what is the process to support effective change in the people who make up our organisations?
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 organisational 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 Driving Forces, which promote change, and Restraining Forces, which hinder it. 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.
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.
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 rumour in times of change.
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.
When Lewin first described his Freeze Phases model, he was clear that the phases represent parts of a journey; a continuous process. The model has suffered a degree of neglect. Probably this is largely because Lewin’s use of the term ‘phases’ has led to some false interpretations that he was referring to three static stages.
However, we might equally argue that his thinking is in rude health. In his 1980 book, ‘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 30 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, it 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.
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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