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Models of planned change

Models of planned change

Why do models of planned change not bring about cultural change?
Minimum mandatory reading
Senior, B. and Swailes, S. (2010). Organizational Change. 4th Ed, Harlow: FT Prentice Hall
Burnes, B. (2004) “Emergent change and planned change – competitors or allies?: The case of XYZ construction”, International Journal of Operations and Production Management, 24(9): 886 – 902.
Harris, L. C. and Ogbonna, E. (2002) The Unintended Consequences of Culture Interventions: A Study of Unexpected Outcomes. British Journal of Management.


All these price is extracted from Edward C Tolman’s memorial home address for Kurt Lewin transported within the 1947 Meeting of the American Intellectual health Business (cited 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of the 3‐Step model of change (Cummings and Huse, 1989; Schein, 1988), and this tends often to be dismissed as outdated (Burnes, 2000; Dawson, 1994; Dent and Goldberg, 1999; Hatch, 1997; Kanter et al., 1992; Marshak, 1993).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 altering earth, one specific might predict Lewin’s groundbreaking focus on change to be seized upon with admiration, specially given the high breakdown level of several alter courses (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 along with his job.. 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 of developments in the field of organizational change since Lewin’s death, and an evaluation of the criticisms levelled against his work. The article concludes by arguing that rather than being outdated, Lewin’s Planned approach is still very relevant to the needs of the modern world.

LEWIN’s BACKGROUND Handful of social experts could possibly have acquired the quantity of words of flattery and appreciation which has been heaped upon Kurt Lewin (Ash, 1992 Bargal et al., 1992 Damage and Goldberg, 1999 Dickens and Watkins, 1999 Tobach, 1994). As Edgar Schein (1988, p. 239) enthusiastically commented:

There is very little worry just how the cerebral daddy of modern-day ideas of employed behavioural technological know-how, movement assessment and organized enhance is Kurt Lewin. His seminal work on leadership style and the experiments on planned change which took place in World War II in an effort to change consumer behaviour launched a whole generation of research in group dynamics and the implementation of change programs.

For many of his existence, Lewin’s primary preoccupation was the resolution of societal conflict and, particularly, the issues of minority or disadvantaged groupings. Underpinning this preoccupation was a strong belief that only the permeation of democratic values into all facets of society could prevent the worst extremes of social conflict. As his wife wrote in the Preface to a volume of his collected work published after his death:

Kurt Lewin was constantly and predominantly preoccupied with the task of progressing the conceptual counsel in the social‐psychological world, and as well he was filled with the critical desire to use his theoretical information for the creating of the far better community, that it is tough to decide which of the two causes of motivation flowed with greater energy or vigour. (Lewin, 1948b)

To many huge stage, his interests and morals stemmed from his back drop as being a German Jew. Lewin was born in 1890 and, for a Jew growing up in Germany, at this time, officially‐approved anti‐Semitism was a fact of life. Few Jews could expect to achieve a responsible post in the civil service or universities. Despite this, Lewin was awarded a doctorate at the University of Berlin in 1916 and went on to teach there. Though he was never awarded tenured status, Lewin achieved a growing international reputation in the 1920s as a leader in his field (Lewin, 1992). However, with the rise of the Nazi Party, Lewin recognized that the position of Jews in Germany was increasingly threatened. The election of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933 was the final straw for him; he resigned from the University and moved to America (Marrow, 1969).

In The United States, Lewin found job very first as a ‘refugee scholar’ at Cornell University or college then, from 1935 to 1945, in the School or college of Iowa. Here he was to embark on an ambitious programme of research which covered topics such as child‐parent relations, conflict in marriage, styles of leadership, worker motivation and performance, conflict in industry, group problem‐solving, communication and attitude change, racism, anti‐Semitism, anti‐racism, discrimination and prejudice, integration‐segregation, peace, war and poverty (Bargal et al., 1992; Cartwright, 1952; Lewin, 1948a). As Cooke (1999) notes, given the prevalence of racism and anti‐Semitism in America at the time, much of this work, especially his increasingly public advocacy in support of disadvantaged groups, put Lewin on the political left.

From the many years of another Group Combat, Lewin performed significantly work with the American conflict function. This included studies of the morale of front‐line troops and psychological warfare, and his famous study aimed at persuading American housewives to buy cheaper cuts of meat (Lewin, 1943a; Marrow, 1969). He was also much in demand as a speaker on minority and inter‐group relations (Smith, 2001). These activities chimed with one of his central preoccupations, which was how Germany’s authoritarian and racist culture could be replaced with one imbued with democratic values. He saw democracy, and the spread of democratic values throughout society, as the central bastion against authoritarianism and despotism. That he viewed the establishment of democracy as a major task, and avoided simplistic and structural recipes, can be gleaned from the following extracts from his article on ‘The special case of Germany’