Kurt Lewin and complexity theories: back to the future?

7984 Words Mar 18th, 2014 32 Pages
Joumal of Change Management,
Vol. 4, No. 4, 309-325, December 2004

i" l Kurt Lewin and complexity theories: back to the future?
Manchester School of Management, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology,
Manchester, UK
ABSTRACT Many writers acknowledge the significance of Kurt Lewin's contribution to organizational change. However, over the last 20 years, where the focus has been on rapid, transformational change, Lewin's work has increasingly become seen as outmoded and irrelevant to the needs of modem organizations. It might be expected that this tendency would increase as academics and practitioners draw on the work of complexity theorists to portray organizations as complex, dynamic, non-linear
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Many writers have argued that organizations are also complex systems which, to survive, need to operate at the edge of chaos and have to respond continuously to changes in their environments through just such a process of spontaneous self-organizing change (Lewis, 1994; Stickland, 1998; Macintosh and MacLean, 1999, 2001; Hayles, 2000; Macbeth, 2002; Stacey, 2003).
This is a far cry from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, where the received wisdom was that change was an incremental process (Quinn, 1980) and that the best way to manage this was through Kurt Lewin's Planned approach to change (French and
Bell, 1990; Cummings and Worley, 2001). Given its group-based, consensual and relatively slow nature. Planned change began to attract criticism in the 1980s from those questioning its appropriateness in an era of radical organizational change
(Peters and Waterman, 1982; Wilson, 1992; Dawson, 1994; Buchanan and Storey,
1997; Hatch, 1997). The following quotation is perhaps typical of the criticisms levelled against Lewin's approach to change:
Lewin's model was a simple one, with organizational change involving three stages; unfreezing, changing and refreezing . . . This quaintly linear and static conception-the organization as an ice cube-is so wildly inappropriate that it is difficult