Lewin's Change Theory in the Field and in the Classroom: Notes
Toward a Model of Managed Learning (tratto
Edgar H. Schein - Professor
of Management Emeritus MIT Sloan School of Management
I. "There is
Nothing So Practical as a Good Theory:" Lewin's Change Model Elaborated
II. "You Cannot
Understand a System Until You Try to Change It:" Process Consultation
and Clinical Research
of Guilt or Survival Anxiety
of Psychological Safety or Overcoming of Learning Anxiety
and Positive or Defensive Identification with a Role Model
Insight or Trial and Error Learning
and Relational Refreezing
III. Kurt Lewin
in The Classroom: Teaching the Management of Planned Change
- The MIT
One Semester Course on Managing Planned Change
My Multiple Roles
Conceptual Core of the Course: Diagnosis as Initial Intervention
and Process Consultation as a Change Strategy
Reviews and Final Reports
Few people have had as profound an impact on the
theory and practice of social and organizational psychology as Kurt
Lewin. Though I never knew him personally I was fortunate during my
graduate school years at Harvard's Social Relations Dept. in 1949-50
to have been exposed to Alex Bavelas and Douglas McGregor, who, in
my mind embodied Lewin's spirit totally. As I will try to show in
this essay, Lewin's spirit and the assumptions that lay behind it
are deeply embedded in my own work and that of many of my colleagues
who practice the art of "Organization Development." This essay will
attempt to spell out some of Lewin's basic dictums and show their
influence in my own and others' contemporary work.  I
will endeavor to show how my own thinking has evolved from theorizing
about "planned change" to thinking about such processes more as "managed
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The power of Lewin's theorizing lay not in a formal propositional kind
of theory but in his ability to build "models" of processes that drew
attention to the right kinds of variables that needed to be conceptualized
and observed. In my opinion, the most powerful of these was his model
of the change process in human systems. I found this model to be fundamentally
necessary in trying to explain various phenomena I had observed, and
I found that it lent itself very well to refinement and elaboration.
My own early work in clinical/social psychology dealt with the attitude
changes that had occurred in military and civilian prisoners of the
Chinese Communists during the Korean war (Schein, 1956,1961,1968).
1 found contemporary theories of attitude change to be trivial and
superficial when applied to some of the profound changes that the
prisoners had undergone, but I found Lewin's basic change model of
unfreezing, changing, and refreezing to be a theoretical foundation
upon which change theory could be built solidly. The key, of course,
was to see that human change, whether at the individual or group level,
was a profound psychological dynamic process that involved painful
unlearning without loss of ego identity and difficult relearning as
one cognitively attempted to restructure one's thoughts, perceptions,
feelings, and attitudes.
Unfreezing as a concept entered the change literature early to highlight
the observation that the stability of human behavior was based on
"quasi- stationary equilibria" supported by a large force field of
driving and restraining forces. For change to occur, this force field
had to be altered under complex psychological conditions because,
as was often noted, just adding a driving force toward change often
produced an immediate counterforce to maintain the equilibrium. This
observation led to the important insight that the equilibrium could
more easily be moved if one could remove restraining forces since
there were usually already driving forces in the system. Unfortunately
restraining forces were harder to get at because they were often personal
psychological defenses or group norms embedded in the organizational
or community culture.
The full ramifications of such restraining forces were only understood
after decades of frustrating encounters with resistance to change,
and only then did we begin to pay attention to the work of cognitive
psychologists on perceptual defenses, to what psychoanalysts and the
Tavistock group were trying to show us with their work on denial,
splitting and projection, and to Argyris's seminal work on defensive
routines (e.g. Argyris, 1990; Hirschhorn, 1988). In trying to explain
what happened to POWs I was led to the necessity to further "unpack"
the concept of unfreezing and to highlight what really goes on there.
Unfreezing is basically three processes, each of which has to be present
to some degree for readiness and motivation to change to be generated.
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It is my belief that all forms of learning and change start with
some form of dissatisfaction or frustration generated by data that disconfirm
our expectations or hopes. Whether we are talking about adaptation to
some new environmental circumstances that thwart the satisfaction of
some need, or whether we are talking about genuinely creative and generative
learning of the kind Peter Senge focuses on, some disequilibrium based
on disconfirming information is a pre-requisite (Senge, 1990). Disconfirmation,
whatever its source, functions as a primary driving force in the quasi-stationary
Disconfirming information is not enough, however, because we can
ignore the information, dismiss it as irrelevant, blame the undesired
outcome on others or fate, or, as is most common, simply deny its
validity. In order to become motivated to change, we must accept the
information and connect it to something we care about. The disconfirmation
must arouse what we can call "survival anxiety" or the feeling that
if we do not change we will fail to meet our needs or fail to achieve
some goals or ideals that we have set for ourselves ("survival guilt").
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In order to feel survival anxiety or guilt, we must accept the disconfirming
data as valid and relevant. What typically prevents us from doing so,
what causes us to react defensively, is a second kind of anxiety which
we can call "learning anxiety," or the feeling that if we allow ourselves
to enter a learning or change process, if we admit to ourselves and
others that something is wrong or imperfect, we will lose our effectiveness,
our self-esteem and maybe even our identity. Most humans need to assume
that they are doing their best at all times, and it may be a real loss
of face to accept and even "embrace" errors (Michael, 1973, 1993). Adapting
poorly or failing to meet our creative potential often looks more desirable
than risking failure and loss of self-esteem in the learning process.
Learning anxiety is the fundamental restraining force which can go up
in direct proportion to the amount of disconfirmation, leading to the
maintenance of the equilibrium by defensive avoidance of the disconfirming
information. It is the dealing with learning anxiety, then, that is
the key to producing change, and Lewin understood this better than anyone.
His involving of workers on the pajama assembly line, his helping the
housewives groups to identify their fear of being seen as less "good"
in the community if they used the new proposed meats and his helping
them to evolve new norms, was a direct attempt to deal with learning
anxiety. This process can be conceptualized in its own right as creating
for the learner some degree of "psychological safety."
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My basic argument is that unless sufficient psychological safety is
created, the disconfirming information will be denied or in other ways
defended against, no survival anxiety will be felt, and, consequently,
no change will take place. The key to effective change management, then,
becomes the ability to balance the amount of threat produced by disconfirming
data with enough psychological safety to allow the change target to
accept the information, feel the survival anxiety, and become motivated
The true artistry of change management lies in the various kinds
of tactics that change agents employ to create psychological safety.
For example, working in groups, creating parallel systems that allow
some relief from day to day work pressures, providing practice fields
in which errors are embraced rather than feared, providing positive
visions to encourage the learner, breaking the learning process into
manageable steps, providing on-line coaching and help all serve the
function of reducing learning anxiety and thus creating genuine motivation
to learn and change.
Unfortunately, motivation is not enough. A theory or model of change
must also explain the actual learning and change mechanisms, and here
Lewin's cognitive models were also very helpful in providing a theoretical
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By what means does a motivated learner learn something new when we are
dealing with thought processes, feelings, values, and attitudes? Fundamentally
it is a process of "cognitive restructuring," which has been labeled
by many others as frame braking or reframing. It occurs by taking in
new information that has one or more of the following impacts: 1 ) semantic
redefinition--we learn that words can mean something different from
what we had assumed; 2) cognitive broadening--we learn that a
given concept can be much more broadly interpreted than what we had
assumed; and 3) new standards of judgment or evaluation--we learn
that the anchors we used for judgment and comparison are not absolute,
and if we use a different anchor our scale of judgment shifts.
An example will make this clear. The concept of "teamwork" is today
highly touted in organizational circles, yet the evidence for effective
team work is at best minimal. The problem lies in the fact that in
the U.S., the cultural assumption that society revolves around the
individual and individual rights is so deeply embedded that when teamwork
is advocated we pay lipservice but basically do not change our individualistic
assumption. How then does change in this area come about? First, we
would need to re-define teamwork as the coordination of individual
activities for pragmatic ends, not the subordination of the individual
to the group. If we define teamwork as individual subordination, as
treating the group to be more important than the individual, we arouse
all the defenses that lead to quips like camels being horses constructed
by a committee, negative images of "group think," lynch mobs, etc.
Second, the redefinition of teamwork also allows one to redefine
individualism in a way that preserves its primacy, not to "substitute"
groupism for individualism. This process of redefinition in effect
enlarges the concept of individualism to include the ability
and obligation to work with others when the task demands it. In other
words, helping a team to win is not inconsistent with individualism.
And, third, one can change the standards by which individual
performance is rewarded. Instead of rewarding "rugged individualism"
or the competitive winning out over others (which makes collaborative
behavior look "weak"), individuals can be increasingly rewarded for
their ability to create, lead, and participate in teams (which makes
collaborative behavior look "strong"). The best individual, then,
is the one who can be an effective team player. What Lewin did with
the housewives, was to help them to change their standard of what
was an acceptable meat, so that kidneys, liver, etc. became cognitively
redefined as acceptable to buy and serve. This process is fundamental
to any change if one wants it to last.
The new information that makes any or all of these processes possible
comes into us by one of two fundamental mechanisms--1 ) learning through
positive or defensive identification with some available positive
or negative role model, or 2) learning through a trial and error process
based on scanning the environment for new concepts (Schein,
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Cognitive re-definition occurs when the learner has become unfrozen,
i.e. motivated to change, and has, therefore opened him or herself up
to new information. The next question to address, then. is how the new
information comes to the learner. The most basic mechanism of acquiring
new information that leads to cognitive restructuring is to discover
in a conversational process that the interpretation that someone else
puts on a concept is different from one's own. If one is motivated to
change, i.e. if the factors described above have been operating, one
may be able to "hear" or "see" something from a new perspective.
The best examples come from what has colloquially been labeled "brainwashing,"
where POWs who were judged "guilty" yet felt innocent, finally were
able to admit their guilt when they could identify with their more
advanced cell mates sufficiently to realize that the concepts of "crime"
and "guilt" were defined differently by the Chinese communists. One
was guilty because a crime was defined as "any action
that could be harmful to the communists" even if no harm had
occurred. A postcard to home, could conceivably contain information
that would help the enemy, so sending the postcard was an act of espionage
and the sender had to learn to appreciate and confess his or her guilt.
Being born into the wrong social class was a crime because middle
class attitudes could be very harmful to the communist cause.
Semantic redefinition, cognitive broadening and changing standards
of judgment were all present in this process.
Only by recognizing this potential for harm, confessing one's guilt,
and acknowledging the incorrectness of one's social origins could
one hope to learn how to be a good communist or to be released from
jail. Once one had accepted the new cognitive frame of reference and
learned the new definitions and standards, one could make rapid progress
in re-education and remove the heavy disconfirming pressure. The key
to the whole process, however, was to identify psychologically with
other prisoners who had already made the cognitive shift and learning
to see the world through their eyes.
Readers who are familiar with socialization processes in families,
schools, companies, religious movements, and other organizational
settings will readily recognize this mechanism as the key to apprenticeships,
to "big brother" programs, to the concept of "mentoring" and to the
various more formal group based indoctrination programs that organizations
use. The mentor or big brother is often both a source of psychological
safety and the role model to facilitate cognitive redefinition (Schein,
1968; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979)
Defensive identification is a rarer process that occurs when the
learner is a captive in a hostile environment in which the most salient
role models are the hostile captors, e.g. prison guards, authoritarian
bosses or teachers, etc. The process was first described in relation
to Nazi Concentration Camps where some prisoners took on the values
and beliefs of the guards and maltreated fellow prisoners. In the
face of severe survival anxiety, for some learners "identification
with the aggressor" was the only solution (Bettelheim, 1943). Genuine
new learning and change occurred, but, of course, in a direction deemed
undesirable by others. In considering such outcomes one is reminded
that unfreezing creates motivation to learn, but does not necessarily
control or predict the direction of learning. If the only new information
available is from salient and powerful role models, learning will
occur in that direction. One of the key elements of a managed change
process is, therefore, what kind of role models one makes available
to the learners once they are unfrozen.
If either no good role models are available, or one wants the learning
to be more genuinely creative one has to create the conditions for
what I call "Scanning."
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A learner or change target can be highly motivated to learn something,
yet have no role models nor initial feeling for where the answer or
solution might lie. The learner then searches or scans by reading, traveling,
talking to people, hiring consultants, entering therapy, going back
to school, etc. to expose him or herself to a variety of new information
that might reveal a solution to the problem. Alternatively, when the
learner finally feels psychologically safe, he or she may experience
spontaneously an insight that spells out the solution. Change agents
such as process consultants or non-directive therapists count on such
insights because of the assumption that the best and most stable solution
will be one that the learner has invented for him or herself.
Once some cognitive redefinition has taken place, the new mental
categories are tested with new behavior which leads to a period of
trial and error and either reinforces the new categories or starts
a new cycle of disconfirmation and search. Note that in the process
of search, if role models are readily available, they will most likely
be used. Identification is thus an efficient and fast process, but
it may lead to solutions that do not stick because they do not fit
the learner's total personality. If one wants to avoid that, one must
create learning environments that do not display role models, thereby
forcing the learner to scan and invent his or her own solutions.
It is this dynamic, to rely on identification with a role model,
that explains why so many consultation processes go awry. The consultant,
by design or unwittingly, becomes a role model and generates solutions
and cognitive categories that do not really fit into the culture of
the client organization and will therefore only be adopted temporarily.
A similar result occurs when organizations attempt to check on their
own performance by "benchmarking," i.e. comparing themselves to a
reference group of organizations and attempting to identify "best
practices." The speed and simplicity of that process is offset by
two dangers. First, it may be that none of the organizations in the
reference set have scanned for a good solution so the whole set continues
to operate sub- optimally, or, second, that the identified best practice
works only in certain kinds of organizational cultures and will fail
in the particular organization that is trying to improve itself. In
other words, learners can attempt to learn things that will not survive
because they do not fit the personality or culture of the learning
system. For change to remain more stable it must be "refrozen."
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The main point about refreezing is that new behavior must be to some
degree congruent with the rest of the behavior and personality of the
learner or it will simply set off new rounds of disconfirmation that
often lead to unlearning the very thing one has learned. The classic
case is the supervisory program that teaches individual supervisors
how to empower employees and then sends them back into an organization
where the culture supports only autocratic supervisory behavior. Or,
in Lewin's classic studies, the attempt to change eating habits by using
an educational program that teaches housewives how to use meats such
as liver and kidneys and then sends them back into a community in which
the norms are that only poor folks who can't afford good meat would
use such poor meat.
The implication for change programs are clear. For personal refreezing
to occur, it is best to avoid identification and encourage scanning
so that the learner will pick solutions that fit him or her. For relational
refreezing to occur, it is best to train the entire group that holds
the norms that support the old behavior. It is only when housewives
groups met and were encouraged to reveal their implicit norms that
change was possible by changing the norms themselves, i.e. introducing
collectively a new set of standards for judging what was"ok" meat.
In summary, what I have tried to show above is that Lewin's basic
model of change leads to a whole range of insights and new concepts
that enrich change theory and make change dynamics more understandable
and manageable. It is a model upon which I have been able to build
further because its fundamental concepts were anchored in empirical
reality. Intellectual knowledge of the change process is not the same
as the know-how or skills that are learned in actually producing change.
In the next section I examine the implication of Lewin's thinking
for the practice of change management.
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The change and consulting literature is filled with the notion that
one first diagnoses a system and then intervenes to change it. I learned
early in my own consulting career that this basic model perpetuates
a fundamental error in thinking, an error that Lewin learned to avoid
in his own change projects and that led him to the seminal concept of
"action research." The conceptual error is to separate the notion of
diagnosis from the notion of intervention. That distinction
comes to us from scientific endeavors where a greater separation exists
between the researcher and the researched, particularly from medicine
where the physical processes are assumed to be somewhat independent
of the psychological processes (an assumption that is not even holding
up in many parts of medicine).
The classical model is that the doctor makes an examination, runs
certain tests, decides what is wrong, and writes a prescription which
includes recommendations for therapy or, if necessary, for other interventions
such as surgery. The consulting industry has perpetuated this model
by proposing as a major part of most projects a diagnostic phase in
which large numbers of interviews, questionnaires, and observations
are made the basis of a set of recommendations given to the client.
Consultants differ on whether they feel they should also be accountable
for the implementation of the recommendations, but they tend to agree
that there is a discrete billable period in any project that is basically
considered necessary--namely a diagnosis of the problem--and that
the consultant's basic job is done with a set of recommendations "for
future intervention." If interviews or surveys are done, the attempt
is made to be as scientifically objective as possible in gathering
the data and to interfere minimally during this phase with the operation
of the organization. What is wrong with this picture?
If Lewin was correct that one cannot understand an organization without
trying to change it, how is it possible to make an adequate diagnosis
without intervening? So either consultants using the classical model
are getting an incorrect picture of the organization, or they are
intervening but are denying it by labeling it "just diagnosis." Isn't
a better initial model of work with organizations something like the
stress test that the cardiologist performs by putting the heart under
pressure to see how it will perform, even knowing that there are some
risks and that some people have been hurt during the test itself?
This risk forces the diagnostician to think about the nature of the
"diagnostic intervention" and to apply clinical criteria for what
is safe, rather than purely scientific criteria of what would seemingly
give the most definitive answer.
It is my contention that Lewin was correct and that we must all approach
our consulting work from a clinical perspective that starts with the
assumption that everything we do with a client system is an intervention,
and that, unless we intervene, we will not learn what some of the
essential dynamics of the system really are. If we start from that
assumption, we need to develop criteria that balance the amount of
information gained from an intervention with the amount of risk to
the client from making that intervention. In other words, if the consultant
is going to interview all the members of top management, he or she
must ask whether the amount of information gained will be worth the
risk of perturbing the system by interviewing everybody, and, if the
answer is "yes," must make a further determination of what is to be
learned from the reactions of the management to being interviewed.
That is, the interview process itself will change the system and the
nature of that change will provide some of the most important data
about how the system works, i.e. will respondents be paranoid and
mistrusting, open and helpful, supportive of each other or hostile
in their comments about each other, cooperative or aloof, and so on.
The best information about the dynamics of the organization will be
how the organization deals with the consultant, because his or her
very presence is de facto an intervention.
Yet the focus in many traditional consultation models is on the "objective
data obtained in the interview" with nary a reference to how the interviewer
felt about the process and what could be inferred from the way he
or she was received. The irony in all of this is that Lewin was by
training a physicist and knew very well the rules of scientific inquiry
and objectivity. For him to have discovered that human systems cannot
be treated with that level of objectivity is, therefore, an important
insight that is all too often ignored in our change and consultation
In actual practice what most change agents have learned from their
own experience is that "diagnostic" activities such as observations,
interviews, and questionnaires are already powerful interventions
and that the process of learning about a system and changing that
system are, in fact, one and the same. This insight has many ramifications,
particularly for the ethics of research and consulting. Too many researchers
and consultants assume that they can "objectively" gather data and
arrive at a diagnosis without having already changed the system. In
fact, the very method of gathering data influences the system and,
therefore, must be considered carefully. For example, asking someone
in a questionnaire how they feel about their boss gets the respondent
thinking about an issue that he or she might not have focused on previously
and it might get them talking to others about the question in a way
that would create a common attitude that was not there before.
The concept of process consultation as a mode of inquiry grew
out of my insight that to be helpful one had to learn enough about
the system to understand where it needed help and that this required
a period of very low key inquiry oriented diagnostic interventions
designed to have a minimal impact on the processes being inquired
about (Schein, 1969,1987,1988). Process consultation as a philosophy
acknowledges that the consultant is not an expert on anything but
how to be helpful, and starts with total ignorance of what is actually
going on in the client system. One of the skills, then, of process
consulting is to "access one's ignorance," to let go of the expert
or doctor role, and get attuned to the client system as much as possible.
Only when one has genuinely understood the problem and what kind of
help is needed, can one even begin to think about recommendations
and prescriptions, and even then it is likely that they will not fit
the client system's culture and will, therefore, not be refrozen even
if initially adopted. Instead, a better model of help is to start
out with the intention of creating in insider/outsider team that is
responsible for diagnostic interventions and all subsequent interventions.
When the consultant and the client have joint ownership of
the change process, both the validity of the diagnostic interventions
and the subsequent change interventions will be greatly enhanced.
The flow of a change or managed learning process then is one of continuous
diagnosis as one is continuously intervening. The consultant must
become highly attuned to his or her own insights into what is going
on and his or her own impact on the client system. Stage models which
emphasize up front contracting do not deal adequately with the reality
that the psychological contract is a constantly evolving one and that
the degree to which it needs to be formalized depends very much on
the culture of the organization.
In summary, Lewin's concept of action research is absolutely fundamental
to any model of working with human systems, and such action research
must be viewed from a clinical perspective as a set of interventions
that must be guided primarily by their presumed impact on the client
system. The immediate implication of this is that in training consultants
and change agents one should put much more emphasis on the clinical
criteria of how different interventions will affect client systems
than on the canons of how to gather scientifically valid information.
Graduate students should be sent into field internships as participant
observers and helpers before they are taught all the canons of how
to gather and analyze data. Both are necessary, but the order of priority
is backward in most training programs.
What can be done to enhance an understanding of these models and
to begin to build the necessary skills to implement them? We turn
next to an experimental course that attempts to teach "the management
of planned change."
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The idea for a "planned change workshop" goes back to the mid 1960's
when Richard Beckhard and I designed a program on "planned change" for
the National Training Labs. The essence of our program was that participants
should be involved in real projects which could be of one or two years
duration, and that the time spent together should be devoted initially
to learning diagnostic intervention tools and models and, thereafter,
to reporting progress to each other. That program started with a one
week workshop and was followed by quarterly meetings of three days duration.
Participants were organized into teams geographically and were expected
to meet regularly with each other to share problems and progress.
What Beckhard and I learned from this program is 1) to learn about
managing change one must be involved in a real project, and 2) one
of the most powerful sources of motivation to work through all the
frustrations involved in managing change is to have to report regularly
on progress to "team mates" and to the faculty. All of the participants
noted during and after the program how important it had been to give
quarterly progress reports, to have a chance at those times to rediagnose,
to recalibrate their own situation and to share war stories and frustrations
with others who were in the same boat.
Criteria for choosing the initial project were 1 ) something that
the workshop participant was personally involved in and cared about;
2) something that would make a real contribution to the organization
from which the participant came; and 3) something that was realistic
in terms of being doable in the time allocated to the workshop, i.e.
one or two years. We considered the workshop a success and felt we
had learned what the essential components of such a learning experience
had to be. But it was not until two decades later that I found a way
to implement my own learning in the more traditional classroom environment.
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In 1987 I decided to experiment with a version of the Beckhard/Schein
model in the regular Masters curriculum of the MIT Sloan School. I offered
a mini-course that ran for 10 weeks, three hours per week. Eventually
it was expanded to a full 14 week long semester elective course for
full academic credit. Enrollment in the first three years averaged around
25 students, but in the last year or so it caught on so I ended up in
1994 with three sections of 30 to 35 students each.
In the first session I emphasized that the core of the course was
not the class time or reading, but two actual change projects--one
personal and one focused on an organization and carried out by a group.
The personal project asked each student to pick some personal
change goal that he or she wanted to work on for the next 14 weeks.
The first week's paper had to spell out the goals and the method that
would be used to achieve them, including some system for appraising
progress week by week. Each week a one page progress report had to
be handed in to me detailing outcomes and any reactions or thoughts
about the change process. These reports were private between me and
each student and provided me an opportunity to react and coach, typically
by asking questions and making suggestions. Reading 100 one page papers
was time consuming but very engaging because each student was wrestling
with real and personally meaningful issues--stopping smoking, losing
weight, overcoming shyness, learning to talk more in large classes,
improving relationship with spouse or a child, increasing reading
speed, developing a more healthy balanced life style, overcoming chronic
lateness, and so on.
The group projects were to be realistic efforts to make an
organizational change somewhere in the MIT environment. At the opening
session I collected data from the class on possible organizational
change projects they might wish to undertake in small teams.
Given that the project had to be completed in 14 weeks, we focused
on organizations to which students had access already, which meant
de facto that most of the projects were located in and around the
MIT Sloan School.
We started with a brainstorming session on all kinds of things that
could and/or should be changed around the school, followed by a joint
critical analysis of what was feasible and worthwhile. My role in
this was to provide a "sanity" or "reality" check on the ideas that
were brought up. When we had a list of feasible projects we duplicated
it and then, in the second class session, did a straw vote to see
how many people were interested in which, to reduce the number down
to roughly one-fourth the size of the class so that each team could
consist of four or five students. Final choice of projects and signing
on to the teams was the last step, usually accomplished by the third
or fourth class session.
In the end I only required that each team had at least two people
and no more than seven or eight. It was essential that each student
picked a project that he or she was genuinely motivated to complete.
This process stood in sharp contrast to what most other classes were
offering as projects where students selected from pre-arranged topics,
sites, or problems instead of having to wrestle with what they would
personally actually commit themselves to. Lewin's insight about the
importance of involving the learner were not lost here.
Once the teams were formed, they met weekly during and after the
class sessions and were required to submit a weekly progress report
on specific goals selected, diagnostic thinking about the project,
action steps taken, and results. Sample projects that were undertaken
were to revise the particular curriculum of a key course on strategy
to make it more international, to resurrect the European Club and
to improve its process of helping students find jobs in Europe, to
improve the responsiveness of the career development office, to reduce
the bureaucracy of the MIT housing office, to fix a leak in the bridge
between two buildings that had been left alone for the past three
years, to develop a student lounge, to redesign the form on which
students gave feedback to faculty on their teaching, to increase the
interaction between first and second year masters students, to increase
the range of food offerings in the local student cafeteria, to create
a lecture series that would expose students to some of the more prominent
faculty at MIT, and so on.
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I served as the animator, teacher, monitor, coach and consultant. In
the initial three hour session I provided the structure, the tasks,
the rules, and the challenge. The bulk of the time in class was devoted
to explaining how things would work, convincing the class that these
projects were for real and that at our last session we would all share
what was actually accomplished. Students were so overtrained to be passive
that animating them to get involved was, in fact, the first challenge.
The most important element of that process was to convince students
that I meant it--that they actually had to choose their own projects
and commit to them.
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Teaching. Starting with the second class
I played a teacher role in providing various diagnostic models for
the students to use in analyzing their individual and team projects.
I suggested a number of books and asked people to read as much as
possible early in the 14 week period since all of the diagnostic material
was relevant up front. At the same time I gave weekly reading assignments
to focus us on relevant materials during the first half of the semester.
Diagnostic models such as the Beckhard/Harris change map, force field
analysis, role network analyses, and the Lewin/Schein stages of change
were presented in the early weeks and rediscussed at later sessions
so that the groups would have all of the tools available early on
but could revisit them as they became more relevant.
A major chunk of time was devoted initially to the concept of process
consultation because the change teams would have to operate without
formal position power. I argued that their best chance of forming
into effective teams vis-s-vis each other and their change targets,
was to define themselves initially as internal process consultants
who would have to develop some kind of access and a constructive relationship
with their selected change targets. I also pointed out that this way
of defining planned change was virtually synonymous with how one might
define the process of management itself, except that one did not have
formal position power. In this context I also reminded students that
most managers report that having position power is not enough to make
planned change happen.
Part of each class during the remainder of the course was devoted
to short lectures on whatever seemed relevant at the time, war stories
from my own experience, war stories that students told from their
experience, and dealing with student questions on their projects.
In dealing with questions I shifted my role increasingly to being
a process consultant to the class and to the projects to highlight
the importance of this role.
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Monitoring and Grading. The monitoring
role was most salient in how I dealt with the papers. For example,
if a paper stated a goal of losing 30 pounds by the end of the semester,
I might ask whether or not that was realistic, how much weight loss
that would mean per week or per day, and how the person would monitor
his or her own progress. If the goal was to overcome shyness I might
ask the person to translate that into something concrete and measurable
such as how many new contacts were made per week at parties, etc.
I gave relatively few hints or suggestions unless the person specifically
requested that kind of help, but concentrated on "process" monitoring:
"How will you measure your progress toward your goal?" "Have you thought
about how you will know at the end of the week whether you have made
any progress?" "What will this mean for your daily behavior?" etc.
Suggestions were always couched as questions: "Have you done a force
field analysis relative to your change target?" "Who are the people
in your role set and how will they react?" "Have you thought of involving
your spouse in your project?" etc. If the logic of what was in the
paper did not hold up I would question it or point out inconsistencies
or lack of realism.
I made it clear at the outset that I expected everyone to do all
the work, attend all of the classes, submit all of the papers, and
that would result in a grade of A for every student. The only way
to get a poor grade would be to shirk on the work or to put in obviously
substandard papers. If students were absent or did not hand in papers
two weeks running, I put notes in their boxes reminding them of their
commitment. My goal was to create a climate where everyone would learn
to the maximum of their own potential and would, therefore, merit
the grade of A. I did not require that every project had to meet its
change targets, but I did require that every project maximize its
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Consulting and Coaching. These roles
came up most often when I was asked questions about "what to do if....,"
usually in relationship to some "impossible" situation that the class
member had experienced. Implicit in these questions was the assumption
that since I was an expert on change I would be able to advise anyone
on anything having to do with change. It is on these occasions that
I found myself having to subtly shift my role to that of process consultant
by asking inquiry types of questions to learn more about the reason
for the question, the context, and what the questioner had already
thought of. Sometimes I discussed the process directly by noting that
the question was putting me into an expert role that I was not prepared
If team members asked me what do in relation to some aspect of their
specific project, I attempted to get them to think it out with my
help rather than giving them an "expert" answer. Or I would provide
a number of alternatives instead of a single solution if it was clear
that I had to provide some level of expertise. The best way to get
this across was to think of myself as a "coach" who would help with
the projects but could not do the actual work.
The best setting for coaching was when one group was asked to consult
to another group, an activity that I started midway into the course.
Sometimes I would role play the consultant before asking class members
to do it, but the best learning actually arose when groups consulted
with each other. Inevitably the consultants would make ineffective
comments, or ask confrontive questions, or in some other way create
a tense rather than a helping relationship. Once this happened I had
two choices. I could let the interaction run its course and then get
a reconstruction. A more effective intervention was to jump in immediately
when something happened that seemed not to be optimally effective
and provide an alternative or actually "role model" the alternative.
This was direct coaching and was deemed by class members to be the
situation in which they learned the most. In these settings I became
the "process expert" because we were working on real situations in
which I did indeed have more experience.
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Dialogue. During the last two years
I changed the structure of the class sessions by arranging us all
in a circle, introducing the concept of dialogue, and starting each
class with a "check-in" which involved asking each student in turn
to say something about "where you are at right now" at the beginning
of each class (Bohm, 1989; Isaacs, 1993; Schein, 1993). Though this
was at times cumbersome because it took quite a while for 30 people
to check in, the ritual itself became very meaningful and important
to the class. The circle format and the dialogue assumptions made
each session much more interactive and comfortable. It allowed me
from time to time to also ask for a check out by going around the
room near the end of class to see where people were at. If we were
short of time we used a truncated version of check in by asking each
person just to say two or three words such as "anxious but motivated,"
"tired and sleepy," "comfortable and eager," "distracted" and so on.
The Check-ln guaranteed that everyone would have a voice without
having to raise their hand or figure out how to get in, a process
that was especially important for the foreign students with language
problems. One could see week by week how they become more comfortable
during the check in and how this generalized to comfort in the remainder
of the class session. Check-ln also revealed the class mood, things
that were going on in the students' lives that were a distraction,
fatigue levels and other factors that enabled us all to start class
work on a more "realistic" level. It reinforced the dictums I had
espoused--"always deal with the reality as you find it" and "go with
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The Empathy Walk. At roughly eight to
nine weeks into the semester I asked each class to form itself into
pairs and to do the following exercise developed by Richard Walton
and me at a workshop in the 1960's:
1 ) Talk with your partner to identify someone in the greater Boston
area whom the two of you consider to be most different from
the two of you. This will require you to think about how you are similar
and along what dimensions someone would be really different.
2) Locate someone who fits your definition of someone most different
and establish a relationship with that person so that you can spend
a few hours getting into that person's world.
3) Be prepared to report back to the class what you learned.
We typically devoted one whole class session to the "war stories"
students brought back and pulled out insights about the process of
developing empathy. In addition each student wrote up their individual
experience in the weekly paper that week.
Post class feedback consistently confirms that this is one of the
most potent exercises of the semester because it forces confrontation
of self and others at multiple levels. I assigned readings from Erving
Goffman (1959, 1967) during these weeks to provide some conceptual
handles. The ingenuity and cleverness of students that this exercise
releases is dramatic. Students have found and built relationships
with homeless people, street musicians, prostitutes, go-go dancers,
trappist monks, convicted murderers, blind people, dying aids patients!
successful celebrities, fishermen, hare krishnas, and so on. They
discover, among other things, that the difference between them and
their target is often less that their difference from each other.
They realize how insulated their lives are from many real world problems,
and how narrow their own perspectives are. They come face to face
with social status and the dilemmas of having a privileged position
in society, usually in the form of anxiety and guilt when they contemplate
how one approaches a homeless person without "talking down to them."
The discovery that some of these people have had or still have rich
lives comes as a shock. In every case it opens the student up to becoming
more inquiring and more sensitive to others, an essential step in
becoming a successful change agent or manager.
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Project Reviews and Final Reports. Toward
the latter third of the course I began a series of project reviews
by inviting any groups that wanted some help to present their issues
and have other groups or individual students be consultants. After
a half hour or so of the group and their helpers operating in a fish
bowl I would open it up to the floor to get other comments. As unhelpful
comments were made such as unsolicited advice or even punishment for
mistakes that the group was perceived to have made, I would intervene
in a coaching mode to examine what was happening. As pointed out above,
these turned out to be some of the most salient learning experiences.
During the last two class sessions, usually accompanied by cookies
and drinks, each group reported its final outcomes, salient points
about their process, and the major things they had learned from doing
the project. It was at this point that many students revealed the
importance of doing both a personal and group change project because
their struggles with themselves in the personal project gave them
real insights into the problems of resistance to change in the group
projects. Different groups reported different kinds of learning but
a common theme that ran through all of them was the importance of
making a commitment to the change, having an audience in the form
of faculty and fellow team members, and having weekly reports that
forced constant planning and replanning, and provided opportunities
to get feedback.
The real payoff to the students is to discover that they can actually
produce changes that have an impact. To see the Sloan School adopt
a new faculty feedback form, to see actual changes in the student
cafeteria menu offerings, to be thanked by the MIT Housing Office
for improving the system of dealing with applicants, to create a new
physical space and student lounge, to create events that increase
the interaction between faculty and students and have those events
become regular annual events, and, most importantly, to hear the Dean's
office make reference to future student projects as a positive force
for change is the best feedback possible. My own assessment is that
student teams well training in planned change methods can accomplish
more than powerful committees of faculty and administrators who do
not understand how change can and should be managed. Finally, what
surprises us all most is that change can happen fairly rapidly. Fourteen
weeks is enough to make fairly substantial changes happen. But the
conceptual core must be the right one.
[Back to Table
The most important and most difficult concept to get across early in
the course is that diagnosis is intervention and, in fact, that everything
that involves the target system in any way is intervention. The
discovery by students that diagnosis is intervention is paradoxical.
In order to figure out what we need to change and discover where there
is already some motivation to change that we can link with, we have
to find out things about the present state of the system that we cannot
know without inquiring. In order to gather such information we have
talk to people in the system and ask them questions or conduct surveys.
What is especially important to discover is where there is already motivation
to change, where there is already survival anxiety that can be harnessed,
because for many kinds of projects, students are not likely to be able
to disconfirm or induce survival anxiety or guilt. On the other hand,
if the change project involves organizational structures where the students
are the recipients, they can often marshal potent disconfirming data
and induce considerable survival anxiety.
The mental model at this stage that they are "just gathering preliminary
diagnostic data" overlooks that the very people whom they have involved
in the question asking may later be the prime targets whom they are
ultimately trying to change. And, by asking those people various kinds
of questions, they have 1 ) influenced their thinking by raising certain
issues; 2) created an image in their minds of our own style and approach;
and 3) created a degree of awareness and self- consciousness (possibly
even defensiveness) because the targets now know that "there is a
game afoot" and they are in some unknown way part of it.
Furthermore, as change agents, students often assume that they must
remain fairly private about just exactly what they are trying to do,
so they ask very broad inquiry type of questions, never once considering
that the very vagueness of their questions may produce tension and
anxiety in the interviewee precisely because he or she does not know
what the change agents are after. How then do we gather the data necessary
to determine what the present state of the system is without creating
anxiety, misrepresenting ourselves, and unduly influencing the interviewee
The answer lies in working from several assumptions that underlie
process consultation (Schein, 1987,1988) and what has more recently
been called appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987;
Shani & Pitman, 1991). From process consultation one derives the
assumption that one must always work in the present reality and must
understand the ebb and flow of that reality moment to moment, shifting
roles as necessary. If a student is going to gather data from a faculty
member, the student must understand that there are already strong
role expectations on both sides and one must work initially within
that set of expectations. For example, some amount of deference is
expected and must initially be honored. The faculty member would expect
to be asked questions that draw on his or her field of expertise and
the student would be expected to listen politely.
On the other hand if the student knows that the faculty member knows
that the student is part of a team that has been set up to redesign
portions of the curriculum, the student can assume that the faculty
member would be curious, possibly anxious, and would prefer to find
out first from the student what this was all about before revealing
his or her own information. In that case the student might open the
discussion by volunteering a description of the project in terms that
are informative and minimally threatening.
Alternatively, the faculty interviewee might seize the initiative
and ask a bunch of questions about the project. In those preliminary
questions, the student would have to assess how much anxiety is present
and vary his or her tactics accordingly. It is in the design of those
tactics where "appreciative inquiry" plays a role. One of the core
assumptions of appreciative inquiry is to focus initially on what
is working well and avoid criticism or problem foci. The interview
might well start with what the faculty member is most proud of or
what works best in the curriculum. If the interviewer focuses on success
and what works well, he or she is creating psychological safety that
will make it easier for both parties later in the interview to discuss
problem areas, difficulties, things that need improvement. The prime
data that the interviewer needs and wants is where the faculty member
sees problems or has motivation to change, but the initial assumption
has to be that he or she will not be ready to talk about problems
until they feel safe with the interviewer, and they will only feel
safe if the interviewer displays appreciation of what works well.
As the interview or interaction proceeds, the change agent must be
constantly alert for changes in mood or feeling on the part of the
interviewee, being especially sensitive to issues that may be threatening
to the interviewee leading to a shutting down of the flow of information.
It is in that ongoing interaction that the tactical use of inquiry
questions, diagnostic questions, action oriented questions, and confrontive
questions comes into play (Schein, 1987, p. 1 46).
The goal should be to create an interaction that will provide information
to the change agent, begin to build trust with the potential change
target, and begin to get the change target to think diagnostically
and positively about the change project such that he or she will welcome
another interview or interaction because their curiosity or their
own energy for change has been aroused. In a sense the concept of
"change target" has to become transformed in the change agent's mind
into a "client" who seeks some help or into a "learner." The change
agent has to become a facilitator of the learning process and the
desired change has to be embedded in a "helping process" that makes
sense to the learner.
In thinking this way we have come full circle once again to Lewin's
original concept of involving the change target in the change process,
but I have tried to elaborate and deepen our understanding of the
issues involved in making that happen, especially when the change
agent operates from a position of low status and minimal formal power.
[Back to Table
As I reflect on the material in this essay I am struck once again by
the depth of Lewin's insight and the seminal nature of his concepts
and methods. I have only reflected on some aspects of Lewin's theory,
but even those few aspects have deeply enriched our understanding of
how change happens and what role change agents can and must play if
they are to be successful. Lewin probably saw such issues more clearly
because he was able to view U.S. culture from a European perspective.
Important changes inevitably involve deep cultural and sub-cultural
assumptions. The ability to perceive and appreciate the meaning of such
tacit cultural assumptions is enhanced by working across several cultures.
If we want to enrich our understanding of these dynamics further, we
also should become cross- cultural learners, to expose ourselves to
different cultures and begin to reflect on what it means to try to change
cultural assumptions. We may then discover why "change" is better defined
as "learning," why cultures change through enlarging and broadening
not through destruction of elements, and why the involvement of the
learner is so crucial to any kind of planned change or, as we might
better conceptualize it-- "managed learning."
[Back to Table
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1. Invited paper for a special issue of Systems Practice
edited by Susan Wheelan, March, 1995. [Back]
2. I have deliberately avoided giving specific references
to Lewin's work because it is his basic philosophy and concepts that
have influenced me, and these run through all of his work as well
as the work of so many others who have founded to field of group dynamics
and organization development.[Back]
3. I am indebted to Colleen Lannon Kim tor these terms.
I had originally used Anxiety 1 and Anxiety 2 (Schein, 1993). She
helpfully put some useful labels on them.[Back]
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