Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to Change: A Re-appraisal Bernard Burnes Manchester School of Management

Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to Change: A Re-appraisal

Bernard Burnes Manchester School of Management

 The work of Kurt Lewin dominated the theory and practice of change management for over 40 years. However, in the past 20 years, Lewin’s approach to change, particularly the 3-Step model, has attracted major criticisms. The key ones are that his work: assumed organizations operate in a stable state; was only suitable for small-scale change projects; ignored organizational power and politics; and was top-down and management-driven. This article seeks to re-appraise Lewin’s work and challenge the validity of these views. It begins by describing Lewin’s background and beliefs, especially his commitment to resolving social conflict. The article then moves on to examine the main elements of his Planned approach to change: Field Theory; Group Dynamics; Action Research; and the 3-Step model. This is followed by a brief summary of the major developments in the field of organizational change since Lewin’s death which, in turn, leads to an examination of the main criticisms levelled at Lewin’s work. The article concludes by arguing that rather than being outdated or redundant, Lewin’s approach is still relevant to the modern world.


Freud the clinician and Lewin the experimentalist – these are the two men whose names will stand out before all others in the history of our psychological era.

The above quotation is taken from Edward C Tolman’s memorial address for Kurt Lewin delivered at the 1947 Convention of the American Psychological Associa- tion (quoted 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

Journal of Management Studies 41:6 September 2004 0022-2380

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Address for reprints: Bernard Burnes, Manchester School of Management, UMIST, Manchester M60 1QD, UK (Bernard.Burnes@umist.ac.uk).

dismissed as outdated (Burnes, 2000; Dawson, 1994; Dent and Goldberg, 1999; Hatch, 1997; Kanter et al., 1992; Marshak, 1993).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 changing world, one might expect Lewin’s pioneering work on change to be seized upon with gratitude, especially given the high failure rate of many change programmes (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 and his work.. 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.


Few social scientists can have received the level of praise and admiration that has been heaped upon Kurt Lewin (Ash, 1992; Bargal et al., 1992; Dent and Goldberg, 1999; Dickens and Watkins, 1999; Tobach, 1994). As Edgar Schein (1988, p. 239) enthusiastically commented:

There is little question that the intellectual father of contemporary theories of applied behavioural science, action research and planned change 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 imple- mentation of change programs.

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For most of his life, Lewin’s main preoccupation was the resolution of social con- flict and, in particular, the problems of minority or disadvantaged groups. Under- pinning 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 so constantly and predominantly preoccupied with the task of advancing the conceptual representation of the social-psychological world, and at the same time he was so filled with the urgent desire to use his theoretical insight for the building of a better world, that it is difficult to decide which of these two sources of motivation flowed with greater energy or vigour. (Lewin, 1948b)

To a large extent, his interests and beliefs stemmed from his background as 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 Chancel- lor in 1933 was the final straw for him; he resigned from the University and moved to America (Marrow, 1969).

In America, Lewin found a job first as a ‘refugee scholar’ at Cornell University and then, from 1935 to 1945, at the University 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 perfor- mance, conflict in industry, group problem-solving, communication and attitude change, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-racism, discrimination and prejudice, integra- tion-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.

During the years of the Second World War, Lewin did much work for the American war effort. 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

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(Smith, 2001). These activities chimed with one of his central preoccupa- tions, 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 auth- oritarianism 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’ (Lewin, 1943b):

. . . Nazi culture . . . is deeply rooted, particularly in the youth on whom the future depends. It is a culture which is centred around power as the supreme value and which denounces justice and equality . . . (p. 43)

To be stable, a cultural change has to penetrate all aspects of a nation’s life. The change must, in short, be a change in the ‘cultural atmosphere,’ not merely a change of a single item. (p. 46)

Change in culture requires the change of leadership forms in every walk of life. At the start, particularly important is leadership in those social areas which are fundamental from the point of view of power. (p. 55)

With the end of the War, Lewin established the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The aim of the Center was to investigate all aspects of group behaviour, especially how it could be changed. At the same time, he was also chief architect of the Commission on Community Interrelations (CCI). Founded and funded by the American Jewish Congress, its aim was the eradication of discrimination against all minority groups. As Lewin wrote at the time, ‘We Jews will have to fight for ourselves and we will do so strongly and with good conscience. We also know that the fight of the Jews is part of the fight of all minorities for democratic equality of rights and oppor- tunities . . .’ (quoted in Marrow, 1969, p. 175). In pursuing this objective, Lewin believed that his work on Group Dynamics and Action Research would provide the key tools for the CCI.

Lewin was also influential in establishing the Tavistock Institute in the UK and its Journal, Human Relations ( Jaques, 1998; Marrow, 1969). In addition, in 1946, the Connecticut State Inter-Racial Commission asked Lewin to help train leaders and conduct research on the most effective means of combating racial and reli- gious prejudice in communities. This led to the development of sensitivity train- ing and the creation, in 1947, of the now famous National Training Laboratories. However, his huge workload took its toll on his health, and on 11 February 1947 he died of a heart attack (Lewin, 1992).

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Lewin was a humanitarian who believed that only by resolving social conflict, whether it be religious, racial, marital or industrial, could the human condition be improved. Lewin believed that the key to resolving social conflict was to facilitate learning and so enable individuals to understand and restructure their perceptions of the world around them. In this he was much influenced by the Gestalt psy- chologists he had worked with in Berlin (Smith, 2001). A unifying theme of much of his work is the view that ‘. . . the group to which an individual belongs is the ground for his perceptions, his feelings and his actions’ (Allport, 1948, p. vii). Though Field Theory, Group Dynamics, Action Research and the 3-Step model of change are often treated as separate themes of his work, Lewin saw them as a unified whole with each element supporting and reinforcing the others and all of them necessary to understand and bring about Planned change, whether it be at the level of the individual, group, organization or even society (Bargal and Bar, 1992; Kippenberger, 1998a, 1998b; Smith, 2001). As Allport (1948, p. ix) states: ‘All of his concepts, whatever root-metaphor they employ, comprise a single well- integrated system’. This can be seen from examining these four aspects of his work in turn.

Field Theory

This is an approach to understanding group behaviour by trying to map out the totality and complexity of the field in which the behaviour takes place (Back, 1992). Lewin maintained that to understand any situation it was necessary that: ‘One should view the present situation – the status quo – as being maintained by certain conditions or forces’ (Lewin, 1943a, p. 172). Lewin (1947b) postulated that group behaviour is an intricate set of symbolic interactions and forces that not only affect group structures, but also modify individual behaviour. Therefore, individual behaviour is a function of the group environment or ‘field’, as he termed it. Con- sequently, any changes in behaviour stem from changes, be they small or large, in the forces within the field (Lewin, 1947a). Lewin defined a field as ‘a totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent . . .’ (Lewin, 1946, p. 240). Lewin believed that a field was in a continuous state of adaptation and that ‘Change and constancy are relative concepts; group life is never without change, merely differences in the amount and type of change exist’ (Lewin, 1947a, p. 199). This is why Lewin used the term ‘quasi-stationary equilibrium’ to indicate that whilst there might be a rhythm and pattern to the behaviour and processes of a group, these tended to fluctuate constantly owing to changes in the forces or circumstances that impinge on the group.

Lewin’s view was that if one could identify, plot and establish the potency of these forces, then it would be possible not only to understand why individuals,

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groups and organizations act as they do, but also what forces would need to be diminished or strengthened in order to bring about change. In the main, Lewin saw behavioural change as a slow process; however, he did recognize that under certain circumstances, such as a personal, organizational or societal crisis, the various forces in the field can shift quickly and radically. In such situations, estab- lished routines and behaviours break down and the status quo is no longer viable; new patterns of activity can rapidly emerge and a new equilibrium (or quasi- stationary equilibrium) is formed (Kippenberger, 1998a; Lewin, 1947a).

Despite its obvious value as a vehicle for understanding and changing group behaviour, with Lewin’s death, the general interest in Field Theory waned (Back, 1992; Gold, 1992; Hendry, 1996). However, in recent years, with the work of Argyris (1990) and Hirschhorn (1988) on understanding and overcoming resis- tance to change, Lewin’s work on Field Theory has once again begun to attract interest. According to Hendry (1996), even critics of Lewin’s work have drawn on Field Theory to develop their own models of change (see Pettigrew et al., 1989, 1992). Indeed, parallels have even been drawn between Lewin’s work and the work of complexity theorists (Kippenberger, 1998a). Back (1992), for example, argued that the formulation and behaviour of complex systems as described by Chaos and Catastrophe theorists bear striking similarities to Lewin’s conceptualization of Field Theory. Nevertheless, Field Theory is now probably the least understood element of Lewin’s work, yet, because of its potential to map the forces imping- ing on an individual, group or organization, it underpinned the other elements of his work.

Group Dynamics

. . . the word ‘dynamics’ . . . comes from a Greek word meaning force . . . ‘group dynamics’ refers to the forces operating in groups . . . it is a study of these forces: what gives rise to them, what conditions modify them, what consequences they have, etc. (Cartwright, 1951, p. 382)

Lewin was the first psychologist to write about ‘group dynamics’ and the impor- tance of the group in shaping the behaviour of its members (Allport, 1948; Bargal et al., 1992). Indeed, Lewin’s (1939, p. 165) definition of a ‘group’ is still gener- ally accepted: ‘. . . it is not the similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that con- stitutes a group, but interdependence of fate’. As Kippenberger (1998a) notes, Lewin was addressing two questions: What is it about the nature and characteris- tics of a particular group which causes it to respond (behave) as it does to the forces which impinge on it, and how can these forces be changed in order to elicit a more desirable form of behaviour? It was to address these questions that Lewin began to develop the concept of Group Dynamics.

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Group Dynamics stresses that group behaviour, rather than that of individuals, should be the main focus of change (Bernstein, 1968; Dent and Goldberg, 1999). Lewin (1947b) maintained that it is fruitless to concentrate on changing the behaviour of individuals because the individual in isolation is constrained by group pressures to conform. Consequently, the focus of change must be at the group level and should concentrate on factors such as group norms, roles, inter- actions and socialization processes to create ‘disequilibrium’ and change (Schein, 1988).

Lewin’s pioneering work on Group Dynamics not only laid the foundations for our understanding of groups (Cooke, 1999; Dent and Goldberg, 1999; French and Bell, 1984; Marrow, 1969; Schein, 1988) but has also been linked to complexity theories by researchers examining self-organizing theory and non-linear systems (Tschacher and Brunner, 1995). However, understanding the internal dynamics of a group is not sufficient by itself to bring about change. Lewin also recognized the need to provide a process whereby the members could be engaged in and com- mitted to changing their behaviour. This led Lewin to develop Action Research and the 3-Step model of change.

Action Research

This term was coined by Lewin (1946) in an article entitled ‘Action research and minority problems’. Lewin stated in the article:

In the last year and a half I have had occasion to have contact with a great variety of organizations, institutions, and individuals who came for help in the field of group relations. (Lewin, 1946, p. 201)

However, though these people exhibited . . .


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