- Describe Lewin’s three-stage model of planned change.
- Describe how organizations may embrace continuous change.
How do you plan, organize, and execute change effectively? Some types of change, such as mergers, often come with job losses. In these situations, it is important to remain fair and ethical while laying off otherwise exceptional employees. Once change has occurred, it is vital to take any steps necessary to reinforce the new system. Employees can often require continued support well after an organizational change.
One of the most useful frameworks in this area is the three-stage model of planned change developed in the 1950s by psychologist Kurt Lewin (Lewin, 1951). This model assumes that change will encounter resistance. Therefore, executing change without prior preparation is likely to lead to failure. Instead, organizations should start with unfreezing, or making sure that organizational members are ready for and receptive to change. This is followed by change, or executing the planned changes. Finally, refreezing involves ensuring that change becomes permanent and the new habits, rules, or procedures become the norm.
Unfreezing Before Change
Many change efforts fail because people are insufficiently prepared for change. When employees are not prepared, they are more likely to resist the change effort and less likely to function effectively under the new system. What can organizations do before change to prepare employees? There are a number of things that are important at this stage.
Communicating a Plan for Change
Do people know what the change entails, or are they hearing about the planned changes through the grapevine or office gossip? When employees know what is going to happen, when, and why, they may feel more comfortable. Research shows that those who have more complete information about upcoming changes are more committed to a change effort (Wanberg & Banas, 2000). Moreover, in successful change efforts, the leader not only communicates a plan but also an overall vision for the change (Herold, et. al., 2008). When this vision is exciting and paints a picture of a future that employees would be proud to be a part of, people are likely to be more committed to change.
Ensuring that top management communicates with employees about the upcoming changes also has symbolic value (Armenakis, et. al., 1993). When top management and the company CEO discuss the importance of the changes in meetings, employees are provided with a reason to trust that this change is a strategic initiative. For example, while changing the employee performance appraisal system, the CEO of Kimberly Clark made sure to mention the new system in all meetings with employees, indicating that the change was supported by the CEO.
Develop a Sense of Urgency
People are more likely to accept change if they feel that there is a need for it. If employees feel their company is doing well, the perceived need for change will be smaller. Those who plan the change will need to make the case that there is an external or internal threat to the organization’s competitiveness, reputation, or sometimes even its survival and that failure to act will have undesirable consequences. For example, Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, executed a successful transformation of the company in the early 1990s. In his biography Elephants Can Dance, Gerstner highlights how he achieved cooperation as follows: “Our greatest ally in shaking loose the past was IBM’s eminent collapse. Rather than go with the usual impulse to put on a happy face, I decided to keep the crisis front and center. I didn’t want to lose the sense of urgency (Gerstner, 2002; Kotter, 1996).”
Building a Coalition
To convince people that change is needed, the change leader does not necessarily have to convince every person individually. In fact, people’s opinions toward change are affected by opinion leaders or those people who have a strong influence over the behaviors and attitudes of others (Burkhardt, 1994; Kotter, 1995). Instead of trying to get everyone on board at the same time, it may be more useful to convince and prepare the opinion leaders. Understanding one’s own social networks as well as the networks of others in the organization can help managers identify opinion leaders. Once these individuals agree that the proposed change is needed and will be useful, they will become helpful allies in ensuring that the rest of the organization is ready for change (Armenakis, et. al., 1993). For example, when Paul Pressler became the CEO of Gap Inc. in 2002, he initiated a culture change effort in the hope of creating a sense of identity among the company’s many brands such as Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Gap. For this purpose, employees were segmented instead of trying to reach out to all employees at the same time. Gap Inc. started by training the 2,000 senior managers in “leadership summits,” who in turn were instrumental in ensuring the cooperation of the remaining 150,000 employees of the company (Nash, 2005).
Employees should feel that their needs are not ignored. Therefore, management may prepare employees for change by providing emotional and instrumental support. Emotional support may be in the form of frequently discussing the changes, encouraging employees to voice their concerns, and simply expressing confidence in employees’ ability to perform effectively under the new system. Instrumental support may be in the form of providing a training program to employees so that they know how to function under the new system. Effective leadership and motivation skills can assist managers to provide support to employees.
Allow Employees to Participate
Studies show that employees who participate in planning change efforts tend to have more positive opinions about the change. Why? They will have the opportunity to voice their concerns. They can shape the change effort so that their concerns are addressed. They will be more knowledgeable about the reasons for change, alternatives to the proposed changes, and why the chosen alternative was better than the others. Finally, they will feel a sense of ownership of the planned change and are more likely to be on board (Wanberg & Banas, 2000). Participation may be more useful if it starts at earlier stages, preferably while the problem is still being diagnosed. For example, assume that a company suspects there are problems with manufacturing quality. One way of convincing employees that there is a problem that needs to be solved would be to ask them to take customer calls about the product quality. Once employees experience the problem firsthand, they will be more motivated to solve the problem.