Strategic Change

To succeed, organisations must change, but to say that change is necessary appears somewhat superfluous and somehow misses the essential question. The notion that changes is confined to organisations that are struggling in the market place or have been forced to change because they have become “fat” and complacent is a misnomer. All organisations must constantly adapt and innovate not only in products and services but in management structures and working practices. Organisations are told that they must reinvent themselves. Traditional functional hierarchies are being replaced by matrix organisations, relying on teamwork, collaboration and personal responsibility, providing for a new empowered workforce.

The key pressures for change can be attributed to the following environmental forces:

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·                    Market forces: erratic markets, increased competition, the changing role of the customer, market opportunities, changing aspirations.

·                    Technological advances: heralding new ways of doing business. The opportunities presented by technology to make the organisation more efficient and customer responsive are just being realized and understood.

·                    Political, economic: organisations are having to manage and adapt to political, economic and social trends resulting from government legislation, regulatory bodies, effects of trade tariffs and increased globalization.

·                    Internally: as a result, organisations are focusing on becoming leaner, removing unnecessary processes. (Boss).

The work of Kurt Lewin dominated the theory and practice of change management for over 40 years. However, in the past 20 years, Lewin’s approach to change, particularly the 3-Step model, has attracted major criticisms. The key ones are that his work: assumed organisations operate in a stable state; was only suitable for small-scale change projects; ignored organisational power and politics; and was op-down and management-driven. (Burnes).

In 1945 Lewin founded Research Centre for Group Dynamics bringing in a concern with field theory, group dynamics, action research, and managing change.  In 1946, learning groups emerged as significant, and in 1947 the training group or T group emerged at the NTL institute (National Training Laboratory).  These were unstructured, small group situations in which participants learn from their own actions and use the evolving dynamics of the group.

Although Kurt Lewin’s 3-step model of organisational change consisting of unfreezing, moving and refreezing has been criticized as looking at an organisation in a static state, Burnes stated that the Lewin recognized change at both the individual and the group level and saw his model as a dynamic psychological process. Unfreezing was necessary to destabilized the equilibrium of old behaviour and discard the old behaviour before any new behaviours could be learned. Moving was the actual learning process where employees move from the old behaviours to adopting and performing the new behaviours.  Refreezing stabilizes the new behaviours or the establishment of new organisational values. Lewin recognized that change is a relative concept and that there are various levels of change that can be undertaken in an organisation. (Burnes).

Unfreezing as a concept entered the change literature early to highlight the observation that the stability of human behaviour was based on stationary by a large force field of driving and restraining forces. For change to occur, this force field had to be altered under complex psychological conditions because, as was often noted, just adding a driving force toward change often produced an immediate counterforce to maintain the equilibrium. This observation led to the important insight that the equilibrium could more easily be moved if one could remove restraining forces since there were usually already driving forces in the system. (Greiner).

Lewin was a humanitarian who believed that only by resolving social conflict, whether it is religious, racial, marital or industrial, could the human condition be improved. Lewin believed that the key to resolving social conflict was to facilitate learning and so enable individuals to understand and restructure their perceptions of the world around them.

A successful change project, Lewin argued, involved three steps:

·                    Step 1: Unfreezing. Lewin believed that the stability of human behaviour was based on a quasi-stationary equilibrium supported by a complex field of driving and restraining forces. He argued that the equilibrium needs to be destabilized before old behaviour can be discarded (unlearnt) and new behaviour successfully adopted. Forces that maintain current behaviour are reduced through analysis of the current situation. Imperatives for change are realised through dialogue and re-educational activities such as team building and personal development.

·                    Step 2: Moving. According to Schein notes, unfreezing is not an end in itself; it creates motivation to learn but does not necessarily control or predict the direction. Having analysed the present situation, new structures and processes are put in place to achieve the desired improvements. This echoes Lewin’s view that any attempt to predict or identify a specific outcome from planned change is very difficult because of the complexity of the forces concerned. Instead, one should seek to take into account all the forces at work and identify and evaluate, on a trial and error basis, all the available options. (Burnes).

·                    Step 3: Refreezing. This is the final step in the 3-Step model. Refreezing seeks to stabilize the group at a new quasi-stationary equilibrium in order to ensure that the new behaviours are relatively safe from regression. The main point about refreezing is that new behaviour must be, to some degree, congruent with the rest of the behaviour, personality and environment of the learner or it will simply lead to a new round of disconfirmation (Schein). The changes implemented are then ‘frozen’ in place to ensure that they become part of normal working procedures. This is done by putting in place supporting mechanisms such as policies, procedures and reward systems.

Underpinning Lewin’s work was a strong moral and ethical belief in the importance of democratic institutions and democratic values in society. Lewin believed that only by strengthening democratic participation in all aspects of life and being able to resolve social conflicts could the scourge of despotism, authoritarianism and racism be effectively countered.

Organisational change is an important topic for managers because a substantial part of their jobs requires the formulation and implementation of planned organisational change. Affecting all managers and workers is the increasing amount of change produced by the internationalization and globalization of organisations. Instead of managing local external and internal pressures for change in many parts of the world that have the potential to change their organisation. (Marshak). Organisational change occurs at the level of roles, groups, and organisational structure. The most significant change is structural because it affects the other levels. Sources of change are internal and external variable. Internal variables include the te4chnical production process, political processes, and the organisation’s culture. External forces are population and social trends, political-economic movements, social movements, technology, competition, and culture contact. (Bushe).

National culture influences organisational change because cultures respond differently to change. The time orientation of cultures can be past, present, or future oriented. In addition, various factors create resistance to change such as tradition, habit, resource limitations, power and influence, fear of the unknown, and values. (Newman).

Lewin’s three-phase theory for managing change, organisation development, and macro change theories are useful for managers to understand the dynamics of change. It is also important for managers to know how to overcome resistance to change, including education and communication, participation and involvement, negotiation and agreement.

Lewin undoubtedly had an enormous impact on the field of change. In reappraising Lewin’s Planned approach to change; this article seeks to address three issues: the nature of his contribution; the validity of the criticisms levelled against him; and the relevance of his work for contemporary social and organisational change. (Hendry).

Lewin’s critics have sought to show that his planned approach to change was simplistic and outmoded. By rejecting these criticisms, and by revealing the nature of his approach, this article has also shown the continuing relevance of Lewin’s work, whether in organisations or society at large. The need to resolve social conflict has certainly not diminished since Lewin’s day.