Kurt Lewin and complexity theories:
back to the future?
BERNARD BURNES-Manchester School of Management, University
of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, Manchester, UK
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'.
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