Journal of Management Studies 41:6 September 2004 0022-2380
Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to Change: A Re-appraisal
Manchester School of Management
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 organizations operate in a stable state; was only suitable for small-scale change projects; ignored organizational power and politics; and was top-down and management-driven. This article seeks to re-appraise Lewin’s work and challenge the validity of these views. It begins by describing Lewin’s background and beliefs, especially his commitment to resolving social conﬂict. The article then moves on to examine the main elements of his Planned approach to change: Field Theory; Group Dynamics; Action Research; and the 3-Step model. This is followed by a brief summary of the major developments in the ﬁeld of organizational change since Lewin’s death which, in turn, leads to an examination of the main criticisms levelled at Lewin’s work. The article concludes by arguing that rather than being outdated or redundant, Lewin’s approach is still relevant to the modern world.
INTRODUCTION Freud the clinician and Lewin the experimentalist – these are the two men whose names will stand out before all others in the history of our psychological era. The above quotation is taken from Edward C Tolman’s memorial address for Kurt Lewin delivered at the 1947 Convention of the American Psychological Association (quoted in Marrow, 1969, p. ix). To many people today it will seem strange that Lewin should have been given equal status with Freud. Some 50 years after his death, Lewin is now mainly remembered as the originator of the 3-Step model of change (Cummings and Huse, 1989; Schein, 1988), and this tends often to be Address for reprints: Bernard Burnes, Manchester School of Management, UMIST, Manchester M60 1QD, UK (Bernard.Burnes@umist.ac.uk). © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ , UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
dismissed as outdated (Burnes, 2000; Dawson, 1994; Dent and Goldberg, 1999; Hatch, 1997; Kanter et al., 1992; Marshak, 1993). Yet, as this article will argue, his contribution to our understanding of individual and group behaviour and the role these play in organizations and society was enormous and is still relevant. In today’s turbulent and changing world, one might expect Lewin’s pioneering work on change to be seized upon with gratitude, especially given the high failure rate of many change programmes (Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001; Kearney, 1989; Kotter, 1996; Stickland, 1998; Waclawski, 2002; Wastell et al., 1994; Watcher, 1993; Whyte and Watcher, 1992; Zairi et al., 1994). Unfortunately, his commitment to extending democratic values in society and his work on Field Theory, Group Dynamics and Action Research which, together with his 3-Step model, formed an inter-linked, elaborate and robust approach to Planned change, have received less and less attention (Ash, 1992; Bargal et al., 1992; Cooke, 1999). Indeed, from the 1980s, even Lewin’s work on change was increasingly criticized as relevant only to small-scale changes in stable conditions, and for ignoring issues such as organizational politics and conﬂict. In its place, writers sought to promote a view of change as being constant, and as a political process within organizations (Dawson, 1994; Pettigrew et al., 1992; Wilson, 1992). The purpose of this article is to re-appraise Lewin and his work.. The article begins by describing Lewin’s background, especially the origins of his commitment to resolving social conﬂict. It then moves on to examine the main elements of his Planned approach to change. This is followed by a description...
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