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By Macy Fox

Three Steps of Organizational Change

Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) was a Chicago Gestalt social psychologist who created a three-stage organizational change model using unfreezing, change and refreezing. Although developed for corporate communication and management, Lewin's model can be adapted to educational organizations because it is easy to understand and has a flexible conceptual theory. Most organizational change theories can be reduced to these three stages.


Lewin's model immediately addresses the problem of resistance to change. The unfreezing stage is the key to the entire change model because without education and an examination of motivational factors, people tend to resist change and cling to old ideas and methods. To overcome initial resistance, take a period of examination, critique, unlearning and thawing of old concepts and practices before executing any change.

Do not expect this period to be swift. People are often uncomfortable when their beliefs and habits are questioned. At this point, the suggestion of change feels threatening, and actual change implementation is an upheaval. Phase one is when you make a convincing argument for change. Unfreezing is the time to elicit "buy-in" from all the principals involved in the change. In this stage, you identify and acknowledge assumptions, because assumptions lead directly to behavior.

A primary purpose of the unfreezing stage is to uncover assumptions or beliefs that could be barriers to positive organizational outcomes. New assumptions leading to different frameworks is the work of stage two: change.


During the change stage, explore creative solutions. This is the transitional phase where real policy and planning are constructed. Specific skills and competencies should be identified and plans made for development or consultation. Unfortunately, your change may harm some people, so plans should be made in advance for their transition. You need to anticipate the effects on all your principals.

Do not make the mistake at this stage of spending too little time and attention on skills development, technology assessment, mapping directions and defining new roles and relationships. Painting a clear vision so that people understand what they need to learn and how to behave is critical to change realization. People acting in groups are the real change agents, so roles and relationships should be clear.

Connected to skills, roles and relationships are reward, appraisal, assessment, reporting and other systems necessary to implementing and maintaining the change. These maintenance factors ensure that people do not return to the old concepts or methods and are part of the final phase: refreezing.


Refreezing reinforces the change that was just achieved. This is the phase that makes the change permanent. You may have to continue support, coaching, education or training so that people accept the change benefits and feel comfortable with new tasks and processes. New roles and routines should be closely monitored to ensure that the desired outcomes are valid. Remember to show appreciation for everyone's effort and patience during the transition. Although you may have worked hard to avoid a stressful metamorphosis, some discomfort cannot be completely eliminated. Celebrating your success with others strengthens organizational and group relationships.

Some critics of Lewin's model say that the refreezing phase is unrealistic because constant adaption and flexibility is the new normal. However, in Lewin's defense, the term "refreezing" did not belong to him; it was added by a former student. It might make more sense to see unfreezing, change and refreezing as a continuum. Therefore, this phase marks a period of stability – until the next change.

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