Battle of the Change Theories: Lewin Change Management Model vs. Kotter 8 Step Process

Battle of the Change Theories: Lewin Change Management Model vs. Kotter 8 Step Process
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If you’re a change management geek like me, you’ve probably asked yourself: who would win in a fight, Kotter or Lewin?

The Lewin change management model and Kotter’s 8-step process are two of the most well known and respected theories in change management. But side by side, how do they measure up against one another?

The Lewin change management model in a nutshell

The Lewin change management model is a three stage process.

  1. Unfreeze
  2. Change
  3. Refreeze

In the first stage, the organization must “unfreeze” to allow the behavior, systems, and process changes to happen.

“During this phase, the motivation for change needs to be understood and explained to the organization and the staff.” msnshareblog

According to Borkowski, the key for leadership during this phase is to develop a compelling message. It must explain why the old ways of doing things cannot be sustained and provide a vision for the future.

Communication is therefore especially important during the unfreezing stage.

The second stage is “change”. During this stage the organization accepts the change plan and is transitioning to the new way of doing things.

It’s especially important at this stage that employees and leaders take an active role in the changes.

The final stage is “refreeze”.

“At this stage, it is important to manage for consistency so that the changes are internalized by staff, monitored for reinforcement and adjusted if needed.” msnshareblog

According to Stichler:

“if the change is to be sustained or ‘stick’ over time, the leader must play a pivotal role…by reinforcing the new behaviors with positive feedback, encouragement, recognition and rewards…”

The Kotter change management model in a nutshell

Unlike the Lewin change management model, Kotter’s model has eight steps. That’s five more stages than Lewin’s, so what has he added?

The eight steps are:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency (for change)
  2. Create the guiding coalition
  3. Establish a vision and strategy
  4. Enlist a volunteer army
  5. Empower (or enable) broad-based action
  6. Create short-term wins
  7. Sustain acceleration
  8. Anchor new approaches in culture

It’s immediately evident that Kotter’s 8-step process has been designed with organizational change in mind. Lewin’s model, by contrast, was created with reference to change more generally.

So it’s true that these two theories have their differences. But are there similarities between them?

Battle of the change theories: Lewin and Kotter checklist

Below is a checklist of common change management tools and concepts.

Reviewing the Lewin change management model alongside Kotter’s 8 step process, we can now see which theory covers what principle. We can also see how each concept is referenced and incorporated into both change theories.


Tool / Concept / Challenge
LewinKotter
Awareness of the need
Lewin advised conducting Force Field Analysis to weigh up the pro’s and con’s of the change. Commenting on Lewin’s model, Edgar Schein asserts that "diagnostic" activities, such as interviews and questionnaires, are already powerful interventions. In essence, awareness of the need to change can prompt change itself.
Step 1 is all about creating “urgency” for change. There can be no urgency without awareness.
Communications plan
With reference to Lewin’s unfreeze stage, Tools Hero writes: “It is essential for a business to fully disclose the state of affairs and to explain why a change process is put into force. As a result of clear communication employees are more willing to accept to the new change of direction and they can let go of old customs.”
Communication is mentioned by Kotter as one of the guiding coalition’s responsibilities. Large-scale change can only occur when massive numbers of people rally around a common opportunity (step 4). This cannot take place without a communications plan.
Desire to change
Edgar Schein states that this comes about through the right balance of “disconfirmation”, “survival anxiety” and “psychological safety” during Lewin’s unfreeze stage.
Kotter refers to “the big opportunity”. It’s not just a vision (step 3). It’s also a “compelling, aspirational catalyst. It aligns your team around who they want to become together, and prompts others to raise their hands to help make it happen.”
Resistance management
Resistance to change is addressed in the unfreeze stage. It is replaced by motivation to change. Kotter flips resistance on its head and talks about “buy-in”. Instead of presenting an idea, you have to create a movement. This is where the volunteer army (step 4) comes in.
SponsorshipLewin emphasized the importance of preparing individuals for change (unfreezing) and reinforcing the need for change (freezing). Sponsorship would certainly play a part in this.
The guiding coalition and volunteer army are important steps in Kotter’s process. They both play crucial sponsorship roles.
Knowledge and training
Support is a really important part of the change stage. It is usually in the form of training exercises, coaching, and e-learning tools.
Kotter assumes that knowledge and training will be given as part of the change initiative.
ReinforcementThis is the main focus of the final refreeze stage, which he labelled as the most important.
This is specifically addressed in step 8.
Corrective action
This is certainly part of the process of moving from change to refreeze. Without corrective action, old habits can return and the final stage will be unsuccessful.
Corrective action will occur if necessary in order to create short-term wins (step 6).
MeasurementIn order to take any corrective action, measurement is needed. This is all part of the refreeze stage.
In order to create short-term wins (step 6), progress must be monitored.
Celebration of success
This would be part of stage 2, the change phase.
Specifically addressed in step 6. “Some wins are big, some are small – all wins are motivators.”

Conclusion

It looks to me as though a fight between Kotter and Lewin would be a pretty even one. Rather than being at odds with one another, they actually align incredibly well.

Lewin has been criticized by scholars for over-simplifying the change process and has been defended by others. I would suggest that Kotter’s 8-step process actually fits within Lewin’s foundational model for change. Use both to give your change initiatives the best chance at success.

Christopher Smith
Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.
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