Kurt Lewin and complexity theories: back to the future?

Topics: Change management, Complexity, Self-organization Pages: 29 (7996 words) Published: March 30, 2014
Joumal of Change Management,
Vol. 4, No. 4, 309-325, December 2004


Kurt Lewin and complexity
theories: back to the future?
Manchester School of Management, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, Manchester, UK
ABSTRACT Many writers acknowledge the significance of Kurt Lewin's contribution to organizational change. However, over the last 20 years, where the focus has been on rapid, transformational change, Lewin's work has increasingly become seen as outmoded and irrelevant to the needs of modem organizations. It might be expected that this tendency would increase as academics and practitioners draw on the work of complexity theorists to portray organizations as complex, dynamic, non-linear self-organizing systems. Though there are some who do take this view, there are others who point to the similarities between Lewin's work and that of complexity theorists. In order to examine these conflicting views, the article begins by reviewing Lewin's Planned approach for change and arguing that it is a more robust approach than many of its detractors acknowledge. This is followed by a review ofthe literature on complexity theories which draws out the main implications of these for organizational change. The discussion of the two approaches which follows argues that there is common ground between the two which can fruitfully be built upon. The article concludes by arguing that if the complexity approach is the way forward for organizations, then they may have to return to Lewin's work in order to implement it: very much a case of 'back to the future'.

KEY WORDS: Kurt Lewin, planned change, eomplexity theories

Change is a constant feature of organizational life and the ability to manage it is seen as a core competence of successful organizations (Bumes, 2004b). However, there are significant differences in how it is perceived: is it incremental, punctuated or continuous; can it be driven from the top down or is it an emergent process? (Quinn, 1980,1982; Gersick, 1991; Wilson, 1992; Romanelli and Tushman, 1994; Greenwald, 1996; Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997; Dawson, 2003). These differences are the product of the changing organizational landscape of the last 20 years, where globalization, technological innovation and economic fluctuations have led to a desperate search for increased competitiveness through more and more radical forms of change (Cooper and Jackson, 1997; Kanter et al.

Correspondence Address: Manchester School of Management, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, Manchester, M60 IQD, UK. Email: Bemard.Bumes@umist.ac.uk 1469-7017 Print/1479-1811 Online/04/040309-17 © 2004 Taylor & Franeis Ltd. DOI: 10.1080/1469701042000303811

B. Burnes


1997; Peters, 1997; Beer and Nohria, 2000; Johnson and Scholes, 2002; Stacey, 2003).
However, increasingly over the last decade, academics and practitioners have come to view organizations through the lens of complexity theory, and this is beginning to have a profound impact on view of how organizations should he structured and changed (Wheatley, 1992; Lewis, 1994; Bechtold, 1997; Morgan, 1997; Tetenhaum, 1998; Arndt and Bigelow, 2000; Black, 2000; MacLean, 2001; Fitzgerald, 2002a; Stacey et al., 2002). Complexity theory serves as an umbrella term for a number of theories, ideas and research programmes that are derived from different disciplines in the natural sciences (Rescher, 1996; Styhre, 2002; Stacey, 2003). To emphasize the diversity of viewpoints amongst complexity researchers, this article will follow Black's (2000) lead and use the term complexity theories rather than theory.

Complexity theories are concemed with the emergence of order in dynamic non-linear systems, such as weather systems, operating at the edge of chaos: in other words, systems which are constantly changing and where the laws of cause and effect appear not to apply (Wheatley, 1992; Beeson and Davis,...

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