Change definition and the Kurt Lewin Model



Change is everywhere and is always happening.  It is a coming together and a falling apart.  Somewhere in the middle is a state of ‘No Change,’ which we could also call “stasis” except that the stasis is inherently unstable, coming apart even as it is coming together. A better term is ‘QUASI-STASIS,’ a sometimes-desired state of equilibrium, a balance of forces between the coming together and the falling apart.

For each of us individual humans ‘Change’ is life, itself, a coming together of trillions of atoms to make a whole living thing, walking, talking, and acting on the world around us.

This living whole is always and continuously in a state of flux.  But the flux is not random. It is mostly purposeful and the goal is to reach a good or better state of equilibrium. That striving or converging toward the ‘better’ state could also be called “PROBLEM SOLVING.”  If the result of this coming together is an improved quasi-stasis, that could be called ‘PROGRESS.”

Living Social Systems

To begin to understand who is being served or who is in need of change, we need to make a brief review of what social systems are, how they come into being, how they keep going, how they change, and how they grow and decay.

The following graphic, extends these ideas into something that we can begin to call a social system with not only a joint recognition of common concerns but a division of labor and an integrated set of relations capable of producing joint action.

The graph represents the typical state of affairs in organized societies. Most of us are embedded in social organizations with specified roles and task expectations relating to innumerable shared goals and concerns. However, the degree of connectedness and the areas of shared concern vary widely from group to group. The change agent, in the initial survey of the scene, will have to make some judgments about the strength and tightness of the social organisms with which he or she is dealing. Sometimes, the first task of the change agent may be to bring people together and to increase the degree of cohesion, but in other cases, the more urgent first task may to be to open up a system which is so tightly bound and ordered within itself that it has lost the ability to change.

Change agents can be viewed as both builders and destroyers of systems. Certainly where linkages are very weak (as in Figure 0-1) the focal concern may be system-building, creating linkages among members and creating a sense of the whole for all the members taken together. A social system is in many respects a prized human achievement. In its fullest form it has evolved over countless generations to provide stability, safety, and comfort to our individual lives. Thus, once achieved, cohesive social organization is tightly held, sometimes even to the death. By the same token, where it is very weak or in a state of disintegration, it may be a cause for great anxiety to would-be change agents and others. If you judge this to be the primary concern for your system, then the focal chapter in The Guide for you is Stage 1: Relating.

Basic Ideas of Problem Solving

All human activity is made up of repeating cycles of actions driven by the need to survive and thrive. As people and systems learn and grow the set of actions included in the cycle becomes progressively more intricate and more successful. This process guide is founded on the idea of a cycle of specific actions which promote positive system change, a cycle which needs to be repeated over and over again as a change advances, with careful attention to each of the action steps. Thus, the "steps" are also guiding principles which the change agent must attend to on a continuing basis.


Anyone who intervenes in the problem-solving efforts of a social group or organization can be described as a "change agent," but there are a number of different ways in which such intervention can take place. The change agent can and should specialize in helping with that part of the process where he/she has the best chance of making a difference. That might indicate a very limited or a very broad role definition, a single contribution at a particular point in time or many interventions over the whole course of the change. Let us briefly consider what some of the roles might be, following the 7-stage paradigm for change management.

Ask Yourself

  • Have I worked through this stage?
  • Do I know enough about this stage?
  • Does my project take this stage for granted?
  • Does this stage require more work?
  • Do I have change team members or allies who cover this stage?
  • Do I have change team members or allies who tend to skip over this stage?

Short cuts (skipping or under-valuing certain stages)

  • always tempting,
  • sometimes OK when the “problem,” or the “solution” seems obvious,
  • OK when known to have worked in similar setting and circumstance. 
    • (always ask yourself, what is different or special about this situation?)

BUT: Here are just some reasons why short cuts are usually a bad idea:

  • C: there is not enough energy or motivation in the system to move forward system is frozen- fearful of doing anything to rock the boat no motivation to change
  • R: relating to the client ignored or under-rated
  • E: the “problem” is not the real problem
  • A: no-one has bothered to look for alternative solutions
  • T: the “solution” may not be the best solution, even though advocates see it as “obvious,” least costly, in hand “trial” may be half-hearted, incomplete, poorly demonstrated,
  • E: No real evaluation of trail
    • pseudo adoption; tried but value assumed without evaluation
    • no plan or means to extend the change to affect the larger system or other like systems
  • R: one-time trial without diffusion to all inadequate resources to continue after seed money gone no way to update, revise the change for continuing improvement

The fallacy of the easy two-step

Problem clearly defined already, solution is at hand and obviously correct to all concerned (How often do these conditions really apply?).

CREATER Cycle Problems

  • Time pressures; urgency of problem requires skipping steps, rush to trial stage with poorly thought-out “solution”
  • Resource limitations: no time or money to do a proper search or experiment with alternative solutions
  • Isolation: solutions and expertise required to fulfill the cycle are not available, remote, or inaccessible
  • Poor match of problem to “solution” (Do you have the freedom or flexibility to start all over again and rethink the entire process? Often not)

Kurt Lewin




If you are confronted by an established system containing a rather well-defined social structure and long-standing relationships (almost always the case in educational settings), then your initial “change” activity may have to be directed toward weakening or loosening some of these bonds, at least temporarily.

This brings us to one of the many valuable insights into change processing introduced by the great social psychologist and field theorist, Kurt Lewin.  The Lewin Model proposed that all social systems exist in a state of what he called "quasi-stationary equilibrium," the parts being held together by a cohesive energy which also acts as a barrier to outside influences. Like all living things, social systems are required to absorb new inputs from outside on a continuing basis as a matter of survival, but they do so in a highly controlled manner, which preserves the essential stability and relations among existing elements over time. The most conservative view of system maintenance is that all inputs be either expelled or absorbed without changing any of the internal elements or their relations.

In education, the purpose of schools within this conception is to mold new system members in such a way that the system as a whole remains the same, i.e., children are taught exactly what their elders were taught so that they can grow up to fill the exact same social positions that their elders have filled.

Both the barrier and the cohesive ties between elements are necessary for system survival, but barriers and ties are a hindrance to change coming either from within the system or from outside. Internal rigidities and commitments prevent reorganization, growth, and reintegration of existing elements. Strong barriers protect the system from unwanted external intrusions but also inhibit the entry of new people, new resources, and new ideas.


Lewin proposed that the initial posture of most social systems to change is "frozen." Therefore, the initial task of those who wish to bring about change is to unfreeze the system, to create an environment in which ties are at least temporarily loosened and barriers made temporarily permeable.


Lewin's change model was what he called "moving." This is the introduction of the change or innovation and its initial acceptance or absorption into the system. The more permeable the barriers and the looser the interconnections within the system, the more rapidly and easily new elements can enter. This is what we could call system "openness." Advanced and sophisticated systems are able to retain a great deal of internal stability while still welcoming many types of innovations. They can do this by being temporarily open at certain times or by having specialized subsystems that take in, analyze, and transform.


We suggest that "moving" might involve three rather different types of change inputs: (1) change involving internal elements only, i.e. changing relationships, reallocating resources, changing internal linkages and barriers; (2) changes that come from outside in a more-or-less random fashion about either intent or planning; and (3) finally, planned changes, brought about by the deliberate action of persons from inside or outside the system (or both). This Guide is concerned primarily with this third type.



The final step in Lewin's simple model is "refreezing," i.e., the return to stability while the new elements are incorporated. Of course, systems that are temporarily open to new ideas can close up again without incorporating any new elements whatsoever. 

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