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Organisational change for the professions: a planned approach – part 2


In the second of two articles, Malcolm Finney describes the second and third stages of Lewin's model as it relates to change in professional organisations.

The three parts of Kurt Lewin's model of the change process are:
1. unfreezing the status quo;
2. changing from the old to the new state; and
3. refreezing the new state.

The previous article looked at the first part of this, unfreezing. Unfreezing, as earlier discussed, involves the need for previously held beliefs and attitudes to be challenged. It requires that individuals in the organisation not only accept that change is necessary but become committed to it and demonstrate a clear motivation to change. This, in turn, requires that the individuals who are subject to the change process believe that it is safe for them to amend their beliefs etc. Once the organisation feels that the individuals are committed to change then stage two of the process, ie changing from the old to the new state, can commence.

This changing from the old to the new state involves the learning of new beliefs, behaviours and attitudes following the recognition, arising from stage one of the model, that the old or pre-existing ones are no longer appropriate. This new learning may be achieved by various interventions. Changes to the organisation’s structure may be necessary to implement the changes desired; new communication channels may be set up; old reporting requirements may be scrapped and new ones created; training, whether individually or in groups, is almost invariably needed; etc.

Of critical importance is the need for those at the top of the management structure themselves to be totally committed to the changes. Any reluctance on the part of this top management will almost certainly mean the exercise will be doomed to failure.

This is explained by the fact that one of the most important ways in which individuals can implement change within themselves is by observing the behaviours and attitudes of so-called "relevant others", possibly the individual’s mentor. In essence, the mentor is the role model and by observing the mentor’s behaviour new behaviours etc are then learned and practised by the individual. It thus becomes clear that any undesirable behaviours on the part of top management (ie a continuation of the "old" way of doing things rather than adopting the "new" methods) will simply be mimicked by others and change will become impossible.

Even where change appears to have occurred successfully there is always the strong possibility that the changes are in fact somewhat superficial. In such cases reversion to the "old" ways of doing things may then become inevitable. Stage three of Lewin’s model, ie refreezing the new state, is designed to prevent this relapse occurring.

Thus, refreezing refers to the need to stabilise the organisation at the new level ie to ensure that regression does not occur. For example, if as part of the change process individuals are taught via training programmes new behaviours it is then, of course, important that the newly taught behaviours transfer successfully to the work place.
Often problems in this regard can arise. This may happen, for example, where the manger to whom the individuals report does not himself/herself really go along with the new changes and seeks to disconfirm the new behaviours the individuals bring back from the training programmes to the work place. In such cases it is likely that the individuals will simply revert to old behaviours.

One approach which may reduce the probability of this occurring is by using team/group training; this then permits the team/group on returning to the work place to reinforce each other’s new learned behaviours. In short, the whole (ie the team) becomes stronger than the sum of its parts (ie the individuals) and the new learned behaviours are more likely to effectively transfer to the work place.

The refreezing may also involve changes to the reward and promotional systems and almost certainly will involve changing the recruitment and induction processes. For example, the reward system in operation must be congruent with the new changes. In this regard it is not uncommon within law firms, in particular, for attempts to be made to encourage a culture of team working rather than pure individualism. On the other hand, at the same time no attempts are made to modify the reward structures to reflect the newly desired changes. The result is that pronouncements etc are made positively encouraging the need to work as part of a team and share information etc yet at the same time salary reviews and promotions are determined almost exclusively by looking solely at an individuals personal chargeable hours, billings and cash collections ie ignoring any team efforts and contributions. Conflict for the individual arises and, for most in these circumstances, the team exhortions will be perceived as no more than rhetoric and a reversion to individual rather than team working will ensue; thus defeating the changes.

In the previous article the example was given of a change whereby a law firm decides to restructure its business along industry lines rather than along the conventional legal disciplines (ie property, litigation etc). Unless a complete rethink of all the attendant consequences is undertaken (eg reporting lines; budgets; appraisal procedures; etc) so that the change programme can address each issue the likelihood is that some degree of reversion on the part of the individuals will occur; thus defeating the intended and well-meaning changes.

For the individual who has perceived the need for change and become committed to it (ie has become as it were "unfrozen"); has accepted the new behaviours (ie has changed or moved); and is at part three of the process (ie the "refreezing") failure may still occur due to incongruence arising. The individual must feel within himself/herself that, not only is there logic to the need for change and an understanding of the need for the consequent new behaviours, but that he/she is still "at peace" within himself/herself. In other words, he/she must feel that what is being asked of him/her is something that is not inconsistent with his/her internal self. Only then is the final stage of refreezing feasible.

This article and the previous article attempted in the limited space to provide an outline of the three key stages involved in so-called planned change. The importance, in particular, of recognising the crucial significance of the "unfreezing" element of Lewin’s model was stressed in the first article. The last two steps of the model were outlined above.

It may be, however, that some changes cannot be effected using Lewin’s model. For example, it is implicit in the model that any changes need to be a collaborative effort involving all those involved. However, internal organisational change may be needed urgently due to some crisis or volatile movement in the marketplace. In such a situation there may not be time for a long and protracted collaborative effort, a much more direct or perhaps coercive approach being the only realistic response.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that there is a school of thought referred to as the "emergent approach to change" (as opposed to the "planned" approach to change of Lewin) which became popular in the early 1980’s because of perceived shortcomings in the "planned" approach. Space does not unfortunately permit further discussion of this other approach, nor a comparison with that discussed in this and the earlier article.

Suffice it to say that as with many behavioural models there is no one "right" model. Typically, each has something to offer and the art for the practitioner is to select the model most appropriate to the particular circumstances. Whatever the arguments amongst the so-called "experts" Lewin’s model is an excellent place to start.

Malcolm Finney is founder of the consultancy Management Dynamics which specialises in consultancy and training for the professions and financial sector.


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