The Matter State Change Management Model: Modernizing Lewin’s “Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze” Model
Lewin’s change model, “Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze” is a 3-stage theory of change that has been widely accepted across business organizations since 1947 (Burnes, 2019). While dated, this model remains quite relevant in today’s business environment because many subsequent models utilize it to form the framework for their own (Connelly, 2020). This suggests that the foundational concepts behind Lewin’s model remain just as important as always, and for good reason! In order for a business organization to change current processes, they must of course be willing to do so (unfreeze stage), pursue the transition (change stage), and establish new stability (refreeze stage). As excellent a model as this is, however, one might notice that it leaves something to be desired: What actually happens in these stages? How can leaders identify exactly what to change? Where does “Plan B” come into play? Will employees accept the change? Customers?
These questions will most certainly vary across every business, as each operates in different capacities, serves varying customer segments, and experiences different sorts of driving and restraining forces; the components of Lewin’s “Force Field Analysis” that provides leaders with an indication that change is necessary (Hussain et al, 2018). However, this indication only serves to suggest that opportunity exists somewhere within current operations based on current conditions and trends. While a great tool to judge the business and organizational climate, interpreting the qualitative, and perhaps, subjective information may prove to be difficult.
Before considering changes to Lewin’s model with this in mind, it is most important to analyze whether the Force Field Analysis (FFA) serves as the most proper tool for leaders to assess the need for change. The figure below details how driving forces and restraining forces interact to create the current level of performance:
Serving as the gateway to Lewin’s change model, the FFA presents a “barrier to entry” of sorts- what indication do leaders have that change is necessary prior to conducting this analysis? If, in fact, they have established that change is necessary, in what manner and through what process might leaders generate future state visions and goals? How are they certain that this decision is the right decision, and can it be monitored to ensure that throughout the process? Difficult questions to ask in difficult times, as the need for process change is often piggybacked by changing structure, teams, and stressful situations (Duck, 1993).
Let’s say, for example, that an organization does in fact possess a desired future state because of more obvious business need, such as broadly accepted technological innovations or M&A activity that now requires the firm to produce a more expansive set of products or features. The indication for change is apparent, thereby providing leaders with a much simpler understanding of what the future state must look like. Utilizing the FFA with a clear understanding of what is likely necessary to achieve that state, the figure below displays how these driving and restraining forces can provide additional, relative details about a project’s potential success when assessed against current processes, beliefs, and capabilities:
This FFA suggests a slightly greater amount of force pushing against the change. Would this immediately discount the potential future state? It is unlikely, but it does pose another risk to holding Lewin’s change model and FFA as gospel. Recognizing these factors that might prevent the desired future state and, consequently, the actual change process, will serve as areas of emphasis for leaders to generate ideas, conduct strategy meetings, incorporate employees, and pursue the actions necessary to integrate change…a lengthy process, as with many change initiatives.
Seen below, Lewin’s change model is displayed in terms of each process stage. Note, however, that the arrows show different stages of Kurt Lewin’s three steps model and not the relationship between variables (Hussain et al, 2018). This presents another potential improvement of the model, as it lacks clear definition of how the variables within each stage might interact throughout the change process, likely leading to a “directional void” for some individuals by introducing inefficiency without clear purpose, direction, and motivation. What happens between the knowledge sharing variable and change implementation? Sure, leadership is certainly involved and responsible for facilitating this implementation, but what role do employees have? How do they manage the “old” and “new” processes at once, or operate without a clear process? In many cases, this is a vital point in change management as implementation of any kind can quickly fail without the appropriate level of support, understanding, and execution! (SHRM, n.d.).
More discussion regarding the “directional void” will be presented further on, however, in seeking to develop an improved change model adapted from Lewin’s current model, we must first start at the beginning. Let’s consider, then, the potential to advance the pace of change according to Lewin’s current model. While the FFA considers qualitative information and, ultimately, requires some level of subjectivity to assess and move forward, what sort of impact on implementation pace might be gained through the addition of qualitative indications gained from employee involvement before the “Unfreeze” stage?
Would this realignment of change activity encourage more creative ideas? Could it indicate exactly where change might be necessary, and why? Rather than more formal “top-down” approaches to change, could this adjustment to a “bottom-up” approach generate deeper consumer insights and lead to more purposeful, effective change? In terms of organizational culture and employee buy-in, what sort of positive cultural shift might be gained through the increased sense of ownership, recognition, and motivation of employees? Gartner (2018) conducted an organizational change management study that generated striking results: Only 34% of change initiatives resulted in clear success, while 50% resulted in clear failures, and 16% resulted in mixed results. Could it be, then, that a modernized change management model might impact the potential success and implementation speed? Gartner (2018) certainly thinks so: “Modern organizations with flatter organizational structures and complex reporting lines can vastly improve the likelihood of change success by adopting an open-source change management strategy.”
These questions suggest that a far more impactful approach to Lewin’s change model might certainly exist with a simple shift in leadership mindset. In today’s “Age of the Consumer” business environment and “Culture-First” job market, the answers to these questions might prove to be the winning approach to delivering an exceptional workplace environment and customer experience, while simultaneously creating an agile change management process to generate the best ideas, implement those with the greatest evidence of potential success, and obtain that elusive competitive edge through pace of implementation.
How, then, might this change occur? For starters, let’s go ahead and shred the Force Field Analysis. While a great tool for leaders to gain an indication of the relevant factors at play, it does not provide the sort of information necessary to modernize the change model. Then, conceptually, instead of existing in the purgatory between Lewin’s “Organizational Change” status and the “Unfreezing” stage, we are introducing a “Continuous Monitoring” stage that exists between customer feedback and employee involvement. This initial approach is adapted from an “Open-Source” change management strategy, which has been found to produce a 22% greater probability of success and decrease implementation time by a third (Gartner, 2018).
This forms the basis for the new and improved model, which we have named the “Matter State Change Management Model”, referring to each of the three stages as a state of physical matter and representing the operational state of the organization. Conceptually, this suggests that a business must be flexible in nature and regularly open to change, thereby removing many restraining forces and instead, able to adapt, adjust, and reform as new information is gathered.
The primary source of this information is gathered through customer feedback to frontline employees, who regularly provide assessments through an innovative quadrant analysis survey tool that identifies the relative importance and satisfaction of key business processes (or any variety of product features, services, or operations) that are often indicative of an innovative culture, product, or service, such as internal technologies or product capabilities. These surveys are designed using a Likert scale to assess satisfaction, while the questions are written to assess the deemed level of importance based on information that has been gathered by employees through customer interactions (Signet Research, 2020). Throughout each survey period, responses are dynamically calculated to produce a visualized representation of the current climate, allowing leaders to easily interpret information to discuss with team members (Signet Research, 2020). For reference, a sample visualization and produced report is seen below for an executed survey used with the intent of determining which business processes and resources required the most significant level of attention for an organization seeking to establish greater innovation activity:
Following the visualized results, leaders are presented with a simple-to-follow analysis of the results:
Opportunities (upper left-hand quadrant) — High Importance/Low Satisfaction
Participants consider the topics in this quadrant to be important, but cite low satisfaction with them. These are areas where the organization stands to gain the most from improvements, so more resources should be concentrated in them to increase satisfaction.
1. Organizational Culture
2. Product Development
Strengths (upper right-hand quadrant) — High Importance/High Satisfaction
Participants consider topics in this quadrant to be important, and cite high satisfaction with them. These are areas that the organization is already strong in, so significant improvement is not needed.
5. Creativity Methods & Approaches
Unimportant Weaknesses (lower left-hand quadrant) — Low Importance/Low Satisfaction
Participants cite low satisfaction with these topics, but do not consider them to be very important. Limited resources should be put into these areas.
6. Reward Systems
7. Allocation of Resources
Excesses (lower right-hand quadrant) — Low Importance/High Satisfaction
Participants cite high satisfaction with these topics, but do not consider them to be very important. Additional resources for these areas should be minimal.
8. Tools & Technologies
10. Measurement & Metrics
Armed with the generated report and the responses gathered during the survey period, leaders possess a deeply insightful assessment that delineates precisely where and why change must be made and further, to what extent (Signet Research, 2020). At this stage, an organization may quickly move from the “Liquid” stage of typical operations (named due to state of which is must always operate; adaptable, flexible, and ready to change based on environment) into the “Gas” stage, seen in the change model depiction to follow. It is at this stage that Lewin’s model truly begins to experience a dynamic shift into the modern day: employees are no longer left out of the fold. In fact, they become highly integrated to the change process!
The Gas Stage is named due to the highly dispersed set of activities throughout the change process as the organization works towards implementation. Because this stage often takes the longest and many businesses encounter significant difficulties in reaching and actually conducting the implementation- often due to traditional organizational structures, formal hierarchies, and inefficient decision-making processes- the open nature of the Gas Stage seeks to break down these barriers and give voice to all team members (Duck, 1993). This stage incorporates Lewin’s variables of “Knowledge Sharing” and “Leadership” but offers the vastly improved “web” dynamic that lends their involvement all throughout the process, as seen in an open-source change management strategy (Gartner, 2018). This means employees and leaders interact in four distinct capacities:
These capacities define the “4-C Web Approach”. As seen in the depiction on the following page, these activities are positioned between “Knowledge Sharing” and “Leadership,” referencing the importance of two-way communication and the spread of information. Appropriately, “Control” and “Communication” are positioned along the “Leadership” side of the 4-C Web Approach, while “Collaboration” and “Creativity” are positioned along the employee side. This is intended to display the relative priorities for each respective set of team members considering their roles and responsibilities, while also ensuring a measure of accountability exists.
The final stage of the Matter State Change Management Model sees the organization move into its “Plasma Stage.” Because of today’s rapidly advancing business environment, no organization should seek to achieve a “solid” state of operations. This would, of course, lead to those traditional, rigid, formal hierarchies that so often produce resistance to change! Enter plasma.
Scientifically, plasma is a state of matter that involves a roughly equal number of positively and negatively charged particles, allowing it to exist in a stable state until otherwise interfered with or disrupted. Because these particles exist in a charged state, they remain highly responsive to the environment in which it exists. For example, a magnetic source placed within a particular distance would cause the plasma to pull towards it, exciting the particles enough to draw them near. In context, plasma represents the achieved state of change for the organization. However, it is neither solid, nor fluid, nor gas. Imagine, then, the culture of an organization existing in the Plasma State; it remains fully operational yet highly responsive to market shifts, changing consumer demands, and new technologies. Consider these magnetic sources in the scientific context, and one might see how business factors might attract the organization towards the “Continuous Improvement” point found in the Liquid Stage.
In closing, the Matter State Change Management Model builds upon Lewin’s change mode by removing nondescript variables, breaking down barriers, introducing more relevant information, and provides all team members with detailed, yet simple-to-understand process stage responsibilities while prioritizing organizational culture and placing customers at the center of all decisions. Today, and rapidly heading into the future, the Matter State Change Management Model should be highly considered as the pinnacle of change management, as it dutifully seeks to encourage innovation, exceed customer expectations, and promotes the positive organizational culture necessary to carry businesses into the future by attractive top talent.
Burnes, B. (2019). The Origins of Lewin’s Three-Step Model of Change. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0021886319892685
Connelly, M. (2020). Force Field Analysis — Kurt Lewin. Retrieved from https://www.change-management-coach.com/force-field-analysis
Duck, J. (1993). Managing Change: The Art of Balancing. HBR. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/1993/11/managing-change-the-art-of-balancing
Gartner (2018). Managing Organizational Change. Retrieved from https://www.gartner.com/en/human-resources/insights/organizational-change-management
Mind Tools (2018). Force Field Analysis: Analyzing the Pressures for and Against Change. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTED_06.htm
SHRM (n.d.). Managing Organizational Change. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org
Signet Research (2020). Sibyl Surveys: Understand Your Customers, Understand Your Employees, Understand Your Product. Retrieved from https://www.sibylsurveys.com/