Lewin’s Theory of Planned Change

JONA Volume 43, Number 2, pp 69-72 Copyright B 2013 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Lewin’s Theory of Planned Change as a Strategic Resource Maria R. Shirey, PhD, MBA, RN, NEA-BC, FACHE, FAAN

This department highlights change management strategies that may be successful in strategically planning and executing organizational change initiatives.Withthegoalofpresenting practical approaches helpful to nurse leaders advancing organizational change, content includes evidence- basedprojects,tools,andresources thatmobilizeandsustainorganiza- tional change initiatives. In this ar- ticle, the author explores the use of the Lewin’s Theory of Planned Change as a strategic resource to mobilize the people side of change. An overview of the theory is pro- vided along with a discussion of its strengths, limitations, and targeted application.

The American Organization of Nurse Executives identifies 5 nurse executive competencies to include communication, knowledge, lead- ership, professionalism, and busi- ness skills.1 Within the category of leadership is the requirement that nurse executives demonstrate pro- ficiency with change management.

Most often, successful change initia- tives use change theory or a planned approach to implement organiza- tional shifts. Change management relates to the ‘‘process, tools, and techniques to manage the people side of change to achieve a required business outcome.’’2(p2) Although there are a multitude of change the- ories to frame the change process, nurse leaders must understand the nuances related to appropriate the- ory selection to apply, lead, and man- age sustainable change. Shanley3

argues that nurse leaders should not dismiss change management theory as unnecessary. Those respon- sible for organizational success must appreciate the different approaches to managing change and match these approaches to their partic- ular circumstances optimizing the best strategy for success.3

This article explores the use of Lewin’s Theory of Planned Change (TPC)4,5 as a strategic resource to mobilize the human capital aspect of change. An overview of the the- ory is provided along with a dis- cussion of strengths, limitations, and targeted application.

Overview of Lewin’s TPC


Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist of the early 20th century, is known as

a pioneer in the study of group dynamics and organizational devel- opment. Among his many accom- plishments is the early development of force field analysis (FFA) as a framework for identifying and ex- amining the factors or forces in- fluencing a situation.4,5 Force field analysis ‘‘maps out the totality and complexity of the field in which the behavior takes place’’6(p311) and then uses this information to guide actions. An FFA specifies forces as either driving (helping forces) or restraining (hindering forces) move- ment toward a goal.

Lewin’s ap- proach postulates that behavior is a function of the group environ- ment or field.6 Lewin’s view is ‘‘that if one could identify, plot and es- tablish the potency of (driving and restraining) forces, then it would be possible not to only understand why individuals, groups and organi- zations act as they do, but also what forces would need to be diminished or strengthened to bring about change.’’6(pp981-982) This important FFA framework forms the founda- tion of Lewin’s 3-stage TPC com- monly referred to in the phases of unfreezing, moving (or transition- ing), and refreezing.5

Elements Unfreezing, the 1st stage, involves getting ready for change. This stage

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Strategic Leadership for Organizational Change

Author Affiliation: Associate Professor, Doctor of Nursing Practice Program, Col- lege of Nursing and Health Professions, University of Southern Indiana, Evansville.

The author declares no conflict of interest. Correspondence: Dr Shirey, College of Nursing and Health Professions, Univer- sity of Southern Indiana, 8600 University Blvd, HP-2044, Evansville, IN 47712 (mrshirey@usi.edu).

DOI: 10.1097/NNA.0b013e31827f20a9

Copyright © 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.



entails a change agent such as a nurse leader recognizing a problem, identifying the need for change, and mobilizing others to see the need for change. Unfreezing may begin with nurse leaders conducting a gap analysis illustrating discrepancies between the desired and current state. Creating a sense of urgency for change is part of unfreezing. A solu- tion is then selected, and preparation for moving away from a current real- ity or equilibrium ensues. This stage is the basis of what Lewin calls the FFA,5 which requires identifying the factors for and against change. Suc- cessful change necessitates strength- ening the driving forces and/or weakening the restraining forces.

Moving or transitioning, the 2nd stage of Lewin’s theory, en- tails looking at change as a process rather than an event. Transitioning is the inner movement that indi- viduals make in reaction to change and requires unfreezing or moving to a new way of being. This stage necessitates creating a detailed plan of action and engaging people to try out the proposed change. Often, this stage is difficult because it has uncertainty and fear associated with change. The transition stage involves coaching to overcome fears and clear communication to avoid losing sight of the desired target, which is a new and improved reality.

Refreezing, the 3rd stage of the theory, demands stabilizing the change so that it becomes embedded into existing systems such as cul- ture, policies, and practices. In re- freezing the change, nurse leaders consider the FFA to accentuate the driving forces facilitating change and counteract the restraining forces getting in the way of change. With refreezing the new change, this dy- namic produces a new equilibrium, which is then recognized as the new

norm or higher level of performance expectation. This 3rd stage is im- portant because locking in or insti- tutionalizing change will be crucial to its sustainability over time.

Evidence Lewin’s TPC has traditional appli- cation in the social sciences and or- ganizational development. A brief review of the literature demon- strates that the theory is also used extensively in clinical nursing prac- tice,7,8 nursing education,9,10 edu- cational administration,11 nursing research,12 and healthcare opera- tions.13 The structure and processes of Lewin’s theory assist in avoid- ing the common pitfalls that thwart change initiative success9 and offer a framework to guide change. The use of FFA concepts provides for a better understanding of how to de- sign detailed action plans and deci- sion matrices for change.

Much of the literature that ad- dresses Lewin’s 3-stage theory fo- cuses on unfreezing and moving. To a lesser extent, however, the change management literature speaks to Lewin’s refreezing stage, which deals with sustainability. In a synthesis pa- per on sustainability, the authors14

conclude that sustainability is de- pendent on multiple factors, at dif- ferent levels of analysis, and include individual, managerial, financial, leadership, organizational, cultural, political, procedural, and contextual. These factors are significant because before initiating change, they can- not always be determined. Tools to assess staff perceptions of change sustainability are available in the lit- erature,15 as are measures to deter- mine readiness for change.16

Strengths The strengths of Lewin’s TPC are that it is versatile, practical, sim-

ple to use, and easy to understand. Because the theory represents one of the oldest change management models in existence, there is much experience with this framework. Lewin’s work, particularly the field theory element, continues to be rel- evant today.17

The theory is considered most effective when used in a top-down approach to change. In this scenario, senior members of an organization and other formal leaders drive and support change. The literature sug- gests that change to be successful re- quires champions to drive it.3

Limitations Although Lewin’s theory is a com- monly used change management theory, it may not always be ap- propriate. The theory is criticized for being too simplistic, quaintly linear, and framed from a static perspective.6 Positions vary from ‘‘for’’ to ‘‘mixed’’ to ‘‘against’’ re- garding the perceived linear aspects of Lewin’s theory.6 Some postulate that today’s healthcare systems are nonlinear and dynamic; thus, change happens more quickly than Lewin’s theory accommodates. Others argue that complexity theories are more dynamic and emergent than the TPC.6 However, some indicate care- ful interpretation of Lewin’s original theoretical work is a back-to-the- future experience that illustrates Lewin’s propositions as consistent with those of more contemporary complexity theorists.6

Lewin’s TPC is considered a rational-linear change management model. Because change is often com- plex and unpredictable, it is not always possible to frame it from an unfreezing, moving, refreezing perspective. Desirable change may not be driven from a top-down per- spective and may need to be more

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Strategic Leadership for Organizational Change

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organic and bottom-up to be ac- cepted and internalized.

Targeted Application of Lewin’s TPC


To apply Lewin’s TPC, Figure 1 shows targeted use of the theory. In this hypothetical example involv- ing the creation of a leadership de- velopment program for a successful 200-bed community hospital, the change project is top-down driven. The change initiative resulted from identification of a future need to grow internal nurse leaders and ad- dress succession planning in the nurse manager role. Figure 1 rep- resents the use of an FFA to iden- tify pertinent driving and restraining forces needed to pursue the goal of a ready future leader pipeline. Con- current with the FFA, senior leaders and current middle managers de- veloped a detailed plan of action to engage potential charge nurse participants. They held town hall meetings with staff nurses to de- scribe the anticipated nurse man- ager needs for the hospital’s next decade of operations and beyond.

Using Figure 1, the driving forces for the desired change include anticipated retirement of nurse man- agers over the next 5 to 10 years, competition from larger hospitals for nurse manager talent, and higher costs associated with recruiting ex- ternal talent as compared with using a growing your own approach. The identified restraining forces are lack of staff nurse motivation to assume formal nursing leadership roles, resistance of nonnursing depart- ments for allocating leadership de- velopment resources to nursing, and noncompetitive nurse manager compensation when compared with larger competitors in the market- place. Using Lewin’s framework and understanding these forces in this application, nurse leaders should strengthen the driving forces and weaken the restraining forces.

To strengthen the driving forces, nurse leaders enlist a team of collab- orators to develop a detailed plan of action emphasizing communication. The plan focuses on creating a sense of urgency for why the leadership development program is needed. Senior leaders may present a grid

and graphs documenting an aging workforce and the anticipated de- mands for filling the nurse manager role given projected organizational growth in services. Documentation could also be shared to demonstrate that internally developed candidates stay with the organization longer, have lower turnover costs, and can be productive more quickly than individuals not familiar with the institution and the culture.

To weaken the restraining forces, nurse leaders provide support struc- tures in the nurse manager role to make it more desirable for staff nurses to aspire to these positions. In ad- dition, clarification is given to other departments that the leadership development program is being pilot tested in the nursing division, with full anticipation that it can also be implemented in other departments after the trial period with nurses. Lastly, the nurse leader engages the human resources department to examine management wages rela- tive to competitors in the market- place and based on identified inequities moves to adjust the nurse manager salary structure as needed.

Lewin’s TPC is selected for this example because it is best used in highly stable environments (eg, hos- pital is currently successful) when there is time to implement deliber- ate, small-scale changes (eg, not ad- dressing urgent situation and having time for planning). In highly unsta- ble environments and under emer- gency situations, grounding change using Lewin’s theory may be coun- terproductive. In this hypothetical hospital’s top-down approach to succession planning, the senior lead- ers are the champions driving the change. The senior leaders, in re- sponse to staff feedback for more leadership development opportu- nities, conceive an initiative thatFigure 1. FFA for leadership development exemplar.

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Strategic Leadership for Organizational Change

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coincides with their workforce de- velopment efforts (eg, win-win situa- tion for nurses, leaders, and hospitals).

Other Considerations

Using change management models facilitates the people side of change. Approaching change management without also incorporating project management activities needed to monitor change can be compared with navigating without oversight and controls. Regardless of the change management theory or framework, any change to processes, systems, or- ganizational structures, and/or job roles requires both a technical side and a people side.2 Positioning for successful change also requires ef- fective leadership and sponsorship.2

Conclusion This article explores the use of Lewin’s TPC as a strategic resource to mobilize the people side of change. Robust evidence exists regarding the efficacy of Lewin’s 3-stage theory.17

Although this theory dates back to the early 20th century, the premises still apply today and form the foun- dation for other more modern change management frameworks. Under- standing the theory along with strengths and limitations is impor- tant for its targeted application. Lewin’s framework is best used with change that is planned, where the initiative starts as a top-down effort,

and when there is stability and time to produce change. Moving an orga- nization to a future desired state also requires incorporating both change management and project manage- ment principles.

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