Un-managing change

23 August

Is it time to rethink the change management paradigm?


"If you want truly to understand something, try to change it." — Kurt Lewin


What if the premise upon which the entire change management industry is founded is wrong? Change management is predominantly based on the Change-As-Three-Steps (CATS) model, which translates to:


Unfreeze → Change → Refreeze

The analogy is that an organisation is like an ice cube; something static, to be temporarily liquified and then recrystallised into the desired shape by a ‘Change Agent’. But change, by nature, doesn’t work this way. Nor should it, in organisations.


The pseudo-history of CATS

The basis of all major change management theories can be reduced to a single idea: CATS1. A few popular theories are summarised below:

CATS is attributed to the work of legendary psychologist, Kurt Lewin. The only problem is, he had nothing to do with it!

As Stephen Cummings, Todd Bridgman and Kenneth Brown convincingly explain in their seminal paper, Unfreezing Change as Three Steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s Legacy for Change Management2 3, the 3-phase model was instead floated by former students of Lewin sometime after his death in 1947 (firstly by Festinger in 1950 and later by Lippit in 1958).

Although Lewin was adamant that group dynamics should not be viewed in simplistic or static terms4, CATS was nevertheless posthumously applauded as ‘one of his greatest endeavours’. Over the years, catalysed by Lewin’s stellar reputation, CATS ‘has come to be regarded both as an objective self-evident truth and an idea with a noble provenance’.5

Based upon a misrepresentation, a whole industry was founded6. Books were written, courses were created, careers were forged and an army of Change Agents was certified to go forth and zap organisations out of their frozen state, lead them through step-by-step phase transitions, and then zap them back to ice again.

It was an appealing top-down approach to change, placing all control neatly into the hands of managers.

Of course, many good insights about organisational change have been observed by scholars such as Schein, Kolb, Kotter, and many others. However, as is the case in any field of inquiry, if a shared set of preconceptions is flawed, if the pre-eminent interpretive framework is faulty, then paradigm paralysis (the inability or refusal to see beyond current models) will lead us down the wrong road every time.

Does anyone really think that organisations resemble and behave like ice cubes?

Reversing all the way back to the 1940s, we find Lewin actually theorising about quasi-equilibrium, arguing that groups are in a continual process of adaptation, rather than a steady or frozen state.7

Let’s look more closely at that idea.


Continual adaption in nature

A few years ago, I decided to run the New York marathon. To overcome acute knee pain from poor running posture I ditched my Nike trainers and switched to barefoot running.

At first, my soft feet blistered after just a few hundred meters, but hyperkeratosis quickly set in as my soles adapted to the new conditions. After a few months, I could run barefoot on tarmac for as far as my legs could take me. I completed the marathon without any blistering whatsoever.

In the complex adaptive system that is my body, the cells on my feet underwent change without any top-down control from my brain. They knew how to change and just went about doing so.

In the complex adaptive systems that are organisations, shouldn’t change also happen like that? Shouldn’t individuals and teams have the skills to adapt to new conditions without top-down control?

If change becomes a distributed capability, rather than a project, then change can occur stochastically and spontaneously within the organisation. It can occur wherever and whenever it is needed.


Continual adaption in organisations

How do organisations create distributed change capability?

Firstly, by maximising the autonomy of teams and individuals. After agreeing with the organisation on what a team's commitments are, allow the team to meet those commitments any way it likes. Allow them to design their own workflows, practices, rituals, team structures, performance measures, reward distributions, etc. Similarly, with individuals.

Secondly, build adaptive capabilities. Allow teams access to the information they need to make adaptive decisions. Also, facilitate the development of adaptive 'muscle': foster psychological safety, strengthen peer accountability, encourage transparency and candour, implement retrospective rituals, provide adaptive leadership training, etcetera. Help teams and individuals develop the skill of continuous change. Provide coaches if necessary.

With distributed change capability, macro-level (organisation) change becomes the aggregation of micro-level (individual) and Meso-level (team/group) changes.

For example, during my marathon training, my body underwent multiple changes. In addition to my feet building callouses, my leg muscles grew, my metabolism changed from burning sugar to burning fat, and my circulatory system increased its bore to pump more blood around. All of these changes were autonomous. The only thing my ‘CEO’ (brain) did was to provide the impetus: dragging my lazy ass out of bed four mornings per week and aiming it down the road for training runs.

We need to move past the notion of change as a managerial process and move towards change as a constantly present adaptive capability. We need to learn to ‘un-manage’ change.


Posted by John Dobbin.
Post Bureaucracy



Learn more:

The Change Management Network, run by Dr Reg Butterfield and Dr Ross Worth, is a good community of people rethinking organisational change.


Image credits:

CATS Table, my training slides, adapted from Cummings et al., (2016)


References and notes:

  1. Hendry, C. (1996) Understanding and creating whole organizational change through learning theory. Human Relations49(5): 621–641.
  2. Stephen Cummings, Todd Bridgman, and Kenneth G Brown, ‘Unfreezing Change as Three Steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s Legacy for Change Management’, Human Relations69, no. 1 (1 January 2016): 33–60, doi:10.1177/0018726715577707.
  3. Thanks to Dr Richard Claydon for pointing me to this.
  4. Lewin, K,. (1951) Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers (ed. Cartwright D).New York: Harper & Row
  5. Cummings et al., (2016)
  6. See (ibid) for Foucauldian archeology of Change Management
  7. Lewin, K,. (1951)

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