sasankamohanty Started The Discussion:
12th September 2007 From India, Mumbai

Hi! here is something on the Lewin change philosphy and do read the Prosci series of change and the ADKAR model if you lay your hands on it!

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 The article concludes by arguing that rather than being outdated or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 Association

(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


© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ,

UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

Address for reprints: Bernard Burnes, Manchester School of Management, UMIST, Manchester M60

1QD, 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dismissed as outdated (Burnes, 2000; Dawson, 1994; Dent and Goldberg, 1999;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 implementation

of change programs.

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For most of his life, Lewin’s main preoccupation was the resolution of social conflict

and, in particular, the problems of minority or disadvantaged groups. Underpinning

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,


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 Chancellor

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 performance,

conflict in industry, group problem-solving, communication and attitude

change, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-racism, discrimination and prejudice, integration-

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


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 preoccupations,

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 authoritarianism

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,


. . . 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 opportunities

. . .’ (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 religious

prejudice in communities. This led to the development of sensitivity training

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 psychologists

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 wellintegrated

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. Consequently,

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, established

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 quasistationary

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 resistance

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 impinging

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 importance

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 generally

accepted: ‘. . . it is not the similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes

a group, but interdependence of fate’. As Kippenberger (1998a) notes,

Lewin was addressing two questions: What is it about the nature and characteristics

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, interactions

and socialization processes to create ‘disequilibrium’ and change (Schein,


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 committed

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 . . .

. . . a great amount of good-will, of readiness to face the problem squarely and

really do something about it . . . These eager people feel themselves to be in a

fog. They feel in a fog on three counts: 1. What is the present situation? 2. What

are the dangers? 3. And most importantly of all, what shall we do? (Lewin, 1946,

p. 201)

Lewin conceived of Action Research as a two-pronged process which would allow

groups to address these three questions. Firstly, it emphasizes that change requires

action, and is directed at achieving this. Secondly, it recognizes that successful

action is based on analysing the situation correctly, identifying all the possible alternative

solutions and choosing the one most appropriate to the situation at hand

(Bennett, 1983). To be successful, though, there has also to be a ‘felt-need’. Felt-

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need is an individual’s inner realization that change is necessary. If felt-need is low

in the group or organization, introducing change becomes problematic. The theoretical

foundations of Action Research lie in Gestalt psychology, which stresses

that change can only successfully be achieved by helping individuals to reflect on

and gain new insights into the totality of their situation. Lewin (1946, p. 206) stated

that Action Research ‘. . . proceeds in a spiral of steps each of which is composed

of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the results of the action.’ It

is an iterative process whereby research leads to action and action leads to evaluation

and further research. As Schein (1996, p. 64) comments, it was Lewin’s view

that ‘. . . one cannot understand an organization without trying to change it . . .’

Indeed, Lewin’s view was very much that the understanding and learning which

this process produces for the individuals and groups concerned, which then feeds

into changed behaviour, is more important than any resulting change as such

(Lewin, 1946).

To this end, Action Research draws on Lewin’s work on Field Theory to identify

the forces that focus on the group to which the individual belongs. It also draws

on Group Dynamics to understand why group members behave in the way they

do when subjected to these forces. Lewin stressed that the routines and patterns

of behaviour in a group are more than just the outcome of opposing forces in a

forcefield. They have a value in themselves and have a positive role to play in

enforcing group norms (Lewin, 1947a). Action Research stresses that for change

to be effective, it must take place at the group level, and must be a participative

and collaborative process which involves all of those concerned (Allport, 1948;

Bargal et al., 1992; French and Bell, 1984; Lewin, 1947b).

Lewin’s first Action Research project was to investigate and reduce violence

between Catholic and Jewish teenage gangs. This was quickly followed by a

project to integrate black and white sales staff in New York department stores

(Marrow, 1969). However, Action Research was also adopted by the Tavistock

Institute in Britain, and used to improve managerial competence and efficiency in

the newly-nationalized coal industry. Since then it has acquired strong adherents

throughout the world (Dickens and Watkins, 1999; Eden and Huxham, 1996;

Elden and Chisholm, 1993). However, Lewin (1947a, p. 228) was concerned


A change towards a higher level of group performance is frequently short

lived; after a ‘shot in the arm,’ group life soon returns to the previous level.

This indicates that it does not suffice to define the objective of a planned change

in group performance as the reaching of a different level. Permanency at

the new level, or permanency for a desired period, should be included in the


It was for this reason that he developed his 3-Step model of change.

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3-Step Model

This is often cited as Lewin’s key contribution to organizational change. However,

it needs to be recognized that when he developed his 3-Step model Lewin was not

thinking only of organizational issues. Nor did he intend it to be seen separately

from the other three elements which comprise his Planned approach to change

(i.e. Field Theory, Group Dynamics and Action Research). Rather Lewin saw the

four concepts as forming an integrated approach to analysing, understanding and

bringing about change at the group, organizational and societal levels.

A successful change project, Lewin (1947a) argued, involved three steps:

• Step 1: Unfreezing. Lewin believed that the stability of human behaviour was

based on a quasi-stationary equilibrium supported by a complex field of

driving and restraining forces. He argued that the equilibrium needs to be

destabilized (unfrozen) before old behaviour can be discarded (unlearnt) and

new behaviour successfully adopted. Given the type of issues that Lewin was

addressing, as one would expect, he did not believe that change would be easy

or that the same approach could be applied in all situations:

The ‘unfreezing of the present level may involve quite different problems

in different cases. Allport . . . has described the ‘catharsis’ which seems necessary

before prejudice can be removed. To break open the shell of complacency

and self-righteousness it is sometimes necessary to bring about an

emotional stir up. (Lewin, 1947a, p. 229)

Enlarging on Lewin’s ideas, Schein (1996, p. 27) comments that the key to

unfreezing ‘. . . was to recognise that change, whether at the individual or

group level, was a profound psychological dynamic process’. Schein (1996)

identifies three processes necessary to achieve unfreezing: disconfirmation of

the validity of the status quo, the induction of guilt or survival anxiety, and

creating psychological safety. He argued that: ‘. . . unless sufficient psychological

safety is created, the disconfirming information will be denied or in other

ways defended against, no survival anxiety will be felt. and consequently, no

change will take place’ (Schein, 1996, p. 61). In other words, those concerned

have to feel safe from loss and humiliation before they can accept the new

information and reject old behaviours.

• Step 2: Moving. As Schein (1996, p. 62) notes, unfreezing is not an end in itself;

it ‘. . . creates motivation to learn but does not necessarily control or predict

the direction’. This echoes Lewin’s view that any attempt to predict or identify

a specific outcome from Planned change is very difficult because of the

complexity of the forces concerned. Instead, one should seek to take into

account all the forces at work and identify and evaluate, on a trial and error

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basis, all the available options (Lewin, 1947a). This is, of course, the learning

approach promoted by Action Research. It is this iterative approach of

research, action and more research which enables groups and individuals to

move from a less acceptable to a more acceptable set of behaviours. However,

as noted above, Lewin (1947a) recognized that, without reinforcement, change

could be short-lived.

• Step 3: Refreezing. This is the final step in the 3-Step model. Refreezing seeks to

stabilize the group at a new quasi-stationary equilibrium in order to ensure that

the new behaviours are relatively safe from regression. The main point about

refreezing is that new behaviour must be, to some degree, congruent with the

rest of the behaviour, personality and environment of the learner or it will

simply lead to a new round of disconfirmation (Schein, 1996). This is why

Lewin saw successful change as a group activity, because unless group norms

and routines are also transformed, changes to individual behaviour will not be

sustained. In organizational terms, refreezing often requires changes to organizational

culture, norms, policies and practices (Cummings and Huse, 1989).

Like other aspects of Lewin’s work, his 3-Step model of change has become

unfashionable in the last two decades (Dawson, 1994; Hatch, 1997; Kanter et al.,

1992). Nevertheless, such is its continuing influence that, as Hendry (1996, p. 624)


Scratch any account of creating and managing change and the idea that change

is a three-stage process which necessarily begins with a process of unfreezing

will not be far below the surface.


Lewin was primarily interested in resolving social conflict through behavioural

change, whether this be within organizations or in the wider society. He identified

two requirements for success:

(1) To analyse and understand how social groupings were formed, motivated

and maintained. To do this, he developed both Field Theory and Group


(2) To change the behaviour of social groups. The primary methods he developed

for achieving this were Action Research and the 3-Step model of


Underpinning Lewin’s work was a strong moral and ethical belief in the importance

of democratic institutions and democratic values in society. Lewin believed

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that only by strengthening democratic participation in all aspects of life and being

able to resolve social conflicts could the scourge of despotism, authoritarianism

and racism be effectively countered. Since his death, Lewin’s wider social agenda

has been mainly pursued under the umbrella of Action Research (Dickens and

Watkins, 1999). This is also the area where Lewin’s Planned approach has been

most closely followed. For example, Bargal and Bar (1992) described how, over

a number of years, they used Lewin’s approach to address the conflict between

Arab-Palestinian and Jewish youths in Israel through the development of intergroup

workshops. The workshops were developed around six principles based on

Lewin’s work:

(a) a recursive process of data collection to determine goals, action to implement

goals and assessment of the action; (b) feedback of research results to trainers;

(c) cooperation between researchers and practitioners; (d) research based on

the laws of the group’s social life, on three stages of change – ‘unfreezing,’

‘moving,’ and ‘refreezing’ – and on the principles of group decision making; (e)

consideration of the values, goals and power structures of change agents and

clients; and (f) use of research to create knowledge and/or solve problems.

(Bargal and Bar, 1992, p. 146)

In terms of organizational change, Lewin and his associates had a long and

fruitful relationship with the Harwood Manufacturing Corporation, where his

approach to change was developed, applied and refined (Marrow, 1969). Coch and

French (1948, p. 512) observed that, at Harwood: ‘From the point of view of

factory management, there were two purposes to the research: (1) Why do people

resist change so strongly? and (2) What can be done to overcome this resistance?’

Therefore, in both his wider social agenda and his narrower organizational

agenda, Lewin sought to address similar issues and apply similar concepts. Since

his death, it is the organizational side of his work which has been given greater

prominence by his followers and successors, mainly through the creation of the

Organization Development (OD) movement (Cummings and Worley, 1997;

French and Bell, 1995).

OD has become the standard-bearer for Kurt Lewin’s pioneering work on

behavioural science in general, and approach to Planned change in particular

(Cummings and Worley, 1997). Up to the 1970s, OD tended to focus on group

issues in organizations, and sought to promote Lewin’s humanistic and democratic

approach to change in the values it espoused (Conner, 1977; Gellerman et al.,

1990; Warwick and Thompson, 1980). However, as French and Bell (1995) noted,

since the late 1970s, in order to keep pace with the perceived needs of organizations,

there has been a major broadening of scope within the OD field. It has

moved away from its focus on groups and towards more organization-wide

issues, such as Socio-Technical Systems, organizational culture, organizational

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learning and radical transformational change. Nevertheless, despite OD’s attempts

to modernize itself, in the last 20 years Lewin’s legacy has met with increasing



By the early 1980s, with the oil shocks of the 1970s, the rise of corporate Japan

and severe economic downturn in the West, it was clear that many organizations

needed to transform themselves rapidly and often brutally if they were to survive

(Burnes, 2000). Given its group-based, consensual and relatively slow nature,

Lewin’s Planned approach began to attract criticism as to its appropriateness and

efficacy, especially from the Culture-Excellence school, the postmodernists and the


The Culture-Excellence approach to organizations, as promoted by Peters and

Waterman (1982) and Kanter (1989), has had an unprecedented impact on the

management of organizations by equating organizational success with the possession

of a strong, appropriate organizational culture (Collins, 1998; Watson, 1997;

Wilson, 1992). Peters and Waterman (1982) argued that Western organizations

were losing their competitive edge because they were too bureaucratic, inflexible,

and slow to change. Instead of the traditional top-down, command-and-control

style of management which tended to segment organizations into small rule-driven

units, proponents of Culture-Excellence stressed the integrated nature of organizations,

both internally and within their environments (Kanter, 1983; Watson,

1997). To survive, it was argued, organizations needed to reconfigure themselves

to build internal and external synergies, and managers needed to encourage a spirit

of innovation, experimentation and entrepreneurship through the creation of

strong, appropriate organizational cultures (Collins, 1998; Kanter, 1983; Peters

and Waterman, 1982; Wilson, 1992).

For proponents of Culture-Excellence, the world is essentially an ambiguous

place where detailed plans are not possible and flexibility is essential. Instead of

close supervision and strict rules, organizational objectives need to be promoted

by loose controls, based on shared values and culture, and pursued through

empowered employees using their own initiative (Watson, 1997). They argue that

change cannot be driven from the top but must emerge in an organic, bottom-up

fashion from the day-to-day actions of all in the organization (Collins, 1998;

Hatch, 1997). Proponents of Culture-Excellence reject as antithetical the Planned

approach to change, sometimes quite scathingly, as the following quotation from

Kanter et al.’s (1992, p. 10) shows:

Lewin’s model was a simple one, with organizational change involving three

stages; unfreezing, changing and refreezing . . . This quaintly linear and static

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conception – the organization as an ice cube – is so wildly inappropriate that it

is difficult to see why it has not only survived but prospered . . . Suffice it to say

here, first, that organizations are never frozen, much less refrozen, but are fluid

entities with many ‘personalities’. Second, to the extent that there are stages,

they overlap and interpenetrate one another in important ways.

At the same time that the Culture-Excellence school were criticizing Planned

change, others, notably Pfeffer (1981, 1992), were claiming that the objectives, and

outcomes, of change programmes were more likely to be determined by power

struggles than by any process of consensus-building or rational decision-making.

For the postmodernists, power is also a central feature of organizational change,

but it arises from the socially-constructed nature of organizational life:

In a socially-constructed world, responsibility for environmental conditions lies

with those who do the constructing . . . This suggests at least two competing scenarios

for organizational change. First, organization change can be a vehicle

of domination for those who conspire to enact the world for others . . . An alternative

use of social constructionism is to create a democracy of enactment in

which the process is made open and available to all . . . such that we create

opportunities for freedom and innovation rather than simply for further domination.

(Hatch, 1997, pp. 367–8)

The other important perspective on organizational change which emerged in the

1980s was the processual approach, which derives from the work of Andrew

Pettigrew (1973, 1979, 1985, 1990a, 1990b, 1997). Processualists reject prescriptive,

recipe-driven approaches to change and are suspicious of single causes or

simple explanations of events. Instead, when studying change, they focus on the

inter-relatedness of individuals, groups, organizations and society (Dawson, 1994;

Pettigrew and Whipp, 1993; Wilson, 1992). In particular, they claim that the

process of change is a complex and untidy cocktail of rational decision processes,

individual perceptions, political struggles and coalition-building (Huczynski and

Buchanan, 2001). Pettigrew (1990a, 1990b) maintains that the Planned approach

is too prescriptive and does not pay enough attention to the need to analyse and

conceptualize organizational change. He argues that change needs to be studied

across different levels of analysis and different time periods, and that it cuts across

functions, spans hierarchical divisions, and has no neat starting or finishing point;

instead it is a ‘complex analytical, political, and cultural process of challenging

and changing the core beliefs, structure and strategy of the firm’ (Pettigrew, 1987,

p. 650).

Looking at Planned change versus a processual approach, Dawson (1994,

pp. 3–4) comments that:

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Although this [Lewin’s] theory has proved useful in understanding planned

change under relatively stable conditions, with the continuing and dynamic

nature of change in today’s business world, it no longer makes sense to implement

a planned process for ‘freezing’ changed behaviours . . . The processual

framework . . . adopts the view that change is a complex and dynamic process

which should not be solidified or treated as a series of linear events . . . central

to the development of a processual approach is the need to incorporate an

analysis of the politics of managing change.

Also taking a processualist perspective, Buchanan and Storey’s (1997, p. 127) main

criticism of those who advocate Planned change is:

. . . their attempt to impose an order and a linear sequence to processes that are

in reality messy and untidy, and which unfold in an iterative fashion with much

backtracking and omission.

Though there are distinct differences between these newer approaches to change,

not least the prescriptive focus of the Culture-Excellence approach versus the analytical

orientation of the processualists, there are also some striking similarities

which they claim strongly challenge the validity of the Planned approach to

change. The newer approaches tend to take a holistic/contextual view of organizations

and their environments; they challenge the notion of change as an ordered,

rational and linear process; and there is an emphasis on change as a continuous

process which is heavily influenced by culture, power and politics (Buchanan and

Storey, 1997; Burnes, 2000; Dawson, 1994; Kanter et al., 1992; Pettigrew, 1997).

Accompanying and offering support to these new approaches to change were new

perspectives on the nature of change in organizations. Up to the late 1970s, the

incremental model of change dominated. Advocates of this view see change as

being a process whereby individual parts of an organization deal incrementally

and separately with one problem and one goal at a time. By managers responding

to pressures in their local internal and external environments in this way, over

time, their organizations become transformed (Cyert and March, 1963; Hedberg

et al., 1976; Lindblom, 1959; Quinn, 1980, 1982).

In the 1980s, two new perspectives on change emerged: the punctuated equilibrium

model and the continuous transformation model. The former approach

to change:

. . . depicts organizations as evolving through relatively long periods of stability

(equilibrium periods) in their basic patterns of activity that are punctuated by

relatively short bursts of fundamental change (revolutionary periods). Revolutionary

periods substantively disrupt established activity patterns and install the

basis for new equilibrium periods. (Romanelli and Tushman, 1994, p. 1141)

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The inspiration for this model arises from two sources: firstly, from the challenge

to Darwin’s gradualist model of evolution in the natural sciences (Gould, 1989);

secondly, from research showing that whilst organizations do appear to fit the

incrementalist model of change for a period of time, there does come a point when

they go through a period of rapid and fundamental change (Gersick, 1991).

Proponents of the continuous transformation model reject both the incrementalist

and punctuated equilibrium models. They argue that, in order to survive,

organizations must develop the ability to change themselves continuously in a fundamental

manner. This is particularly the case in fast-moving sectors such as retail

(Greenwald, 1996). Brown and Eisenhardt (1997, p. 29) draw on the work of complexity

theorists to support their claim for continuous change:

Like organizations, complex systems have large numbers of independent yet

interacting actors. Rather than ever reaching a stable equilibrium, the most

adaptive of these complex systems (e.g., intertidal zones) keep changing continuously

by remaining at the poetically termed ‘edge of chaos’ that exists between

order and disorder. By staying in this intermediate zone, these systems never

quite settle into a stable equilibrium but never quite fall apart. Rather, these

systems, which stay constantly poised between order and disorder, exhibit the

most prolific, complex and continuous change . . .

Complexity theories are increasingly being used by organization theorists and

practitioners as a way of understanding and changing organizations (Bechtold,

1997; Black, 2000; Boje, 2000; Choi et al., 2001; Gilchrist, 2000; Lewis, 1994;

Macbeth, 2002; Shelton and Darling, 2001; Stacey et al., 2002; Tetenbaum, 1998).

Complexity theories come from the natural sciences, where they have shown that

disequilibrium is a necessary condition for the growth of dynamic systems (Prigogine

and Stengers, 1984). Under this view, organizations, like complex systems

in nature, are seen as dynamic non-linear systems. The outcome of their actions

is unpredictable but, like turbulence in gases and liquids, it is governed by a set of

simple order-generating rules (Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997; Lewis, 1994; Lorenz,

1993; Mintzberg et al., 1998; Stacey et al., 2002; Tetenbaum, 1998; Wheatley,

1992). For organizations, as for natural systems, the key to survival is to develop

rules which are capable of keeping an organization operating ‘on the edge of

chaos’ (Stacey et al., 2002). If organizations are too stable, nothing changes and

the system dies; if too chaotic, the system will be overwhelmed by change. In both

situations, radical change is necessary in order to create a new set of ordergenerating

rules which allow the organization to prosper and survive (MacIntosh

and MacLean, 2001).

As can be seen, the newer approaches to change and the newer perspectives on

the nature of change have much in common. One of the problems with all three

perspectives on change – incrementalism, punctuated equilibrium and continuous

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change – is that all three are present in organizational life and none appear dominant.

Indeed, Burnes (2000) even questions whether these are separate and competing

theories, or merely different ways of looking at the same phenomenon:

change. He points out that sectoral, temporal and organizational life cycle differences

can account for whether organizations experience incremental, punctuated

equilibrium or continuous change (Kimberley and Miles, 1980). He also draws on

the natural sciences, in the form of population ecology, to argue that in any given

population of organizations one would expect to see all three types of change

(Hannan and Freeman, 1988). Therefore, rather like the Jungian concept of the

light and dark, these various perspectives on change may be shadow images of

each other, none of which by themselves capable of portraying the whole

(Matthews, 2002).


From the 1980s onwards, as newer perspectives on organizational life and change

have emerged, Lewin’s Planned approach has faced increasing levels of criticisms.

This section summarizes the main criticisms and responds to them.

Criticism 1

Many have is argued that Lewin’s Planned approach is too simplistic and mechanistic

for a world where organizational change is a continuous and open-ended

process (Dawson, 1994; Garvin, 1993; Kanter et al., 1992; Nonaka, 1988; Pettigrew,

1990a, 1990b; Pettigrew et al., 1989; Stacey, 1993; Wilson, 1992).

Response 1. These criticisms appear to stem from a misreading of how Lewin perceived

stability and change. He stated:

One should view the present situation – the status quo – as being maintained by

certain conditions or forces. A culture – for instance, the food habits of a certain

group at a given time – is not a static affair but a live process like a river which

moves but still keeps to a recognizable form . . . Food habits do not occur in

empty space. They are part and parcel of the daily rhythm of being awake and

asleep; of being alone and in a group; of earning a living and playing; of being

a member of a town, a family, a social class, a religious group . . . in a district

with good groceries and restaurants or in an area of poor and irregular food

supply. Somehow all these factors affect food habits at any given time. They

determine the food habits of a group every day anew just as the amount of

water supply and the nature of the river bed determine the flow of the river, its

constancy or change. (Lewin, 1943a, pp. 172–3)

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Far from viewing social or organizational groups as fixed and stable, or viewing

change as linear and uni-dimensional, it is clear that he understood the limits of

stability at least as well as his critics. He argued that social settings are in a state

of constant change but that, just like a river, the rate varies depending on the environment.

He viewed change not as a predictable and planned move from one

stable state to another, but as a complex and iterative learning process where the

journey was more important than the destination, where stability was at best quasistationary

and always fluid, and where, given the complex forces involved, outcomes

cannot be predicted but emerge on a trial and error basis (Kippenberger,

1998a; Lewin, 1947a). Therefore, rather than being prescriptive, Lewin recognized

the unpredictable (non-linear) nature of change and, as Hendry (1996) notes, he

adopted the same ‘contextualist’ and learning approach favoured by many of his

critics. Indeed, as outlined earlier, some argue that Lewin’s conception of stability

and change is very similar to that of many complexity theorists (Back, 1992;

Elrod and Tippett, 2002; Kippenberger, 1998a; MacIntosh and MacLean, 2001;

Tschacher and Brunner, 1995).

We should also note that when Lewin wrote of ‘refreezing’, he referred to preventing

individuals and groups from regressing to their old behaviours. In this

respect, Lewin’s view seems to be similar to that of his critics. For example, the

last stage in Kanter et al.’s (1992, p. 384) model of change is to ‘Reinforce and

institutionalize the change’. More telling, though, is that when Elrod and Tippett

(2002) compared a wide range of change models, they found that most approaches

to organizational change were strikingly similar to Lewin’s 3-Step model. When

they extended their research to other forms of human and organizational change,

they also found that ‘Models of the change process, as perceived by diverse and

seemingly unrelated disciplines [such as bereavement theory, personal transition

theory, creative processes, cultural revolutions and scientific revolutions] . . . follow

Lewin’s . . . three-phase model of change . . .’ (Elrod and Tippett, 2002, p. 273).

Criticism 2

Lewin’s work is only relevant to incremental and isolated change projects and is

not able to incorporate radical, transformational change (Dawson, 1994; Dunphy

and Stace, 1992, 1993; Harris, 1985; Miller and Friesen, 1984; Pettigrew, 1990a,


Response 2. This criticism appears to relate to the speed rather than the magnitude

of change because, as Quinn (1980, 1982) pointed out, over time, incremental

change can lead to radical transformations. It is also necessary to recognize that

Lewin was concerned with behavioural change at the individual, group, organizational

and societal levels (Dickens and Watkins, 1999), whereas rapid transformational

change is seen as only being applicable to situations requiring major

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structural change (Allaire and Firsirotu, 1984; Beer and Nohria, 2000; Burnes,

2000; Cummings and Worley, 1997). Even in such situations, as Kanter et al. (1992)

maintain, these ‘Bold Strokes’ often need to be followed by a whole series of incremental

changes (a ‘Long March’) in order to align an organization’s culture and

behaviours with the new structure. Lewin did recognize that radical behavioural

or cultural change could take place rapidly in times of crisis (Kippenberger, 1998a;

Lewin, 1947a). Such crises may require directive change; again, this may be successful

in terms of structural change but research by Lewin and others has shown

that it rarely works in cases where behavioural change is required (Lewin, 1947b;

Kanter et al., 1992; Schein, 1996; Stace and Dunphy, 2001).

Criticism 3

Lewin’s stands accused of ignoring the role of power and politics in organizations

and the conflictual nature of much of organizational life (Dawson, 1994; Hatch,

1997; Pettigrew, 1980; Pfeffer, 1992; Wilson, 1992).

Response 3. Given the issues that Lewin was addressing, this seems a strange criticism.

Anyone seriously addressing racism and religious intolerance, as Lewin was,

could not ignore these issues. As Bargal et al. (1992, p. 8) note, Lewin’s approach

to change required ‘. . . the taking into account differences in value systems and

power structures of all the parties involved . . .’ This is clear from the following

quotation (Lewin, 1946, p. 203):

An attempt to improve inter-group relations has to face a wide variety of tasks.

It deals with problems of attitude and stereotypes in regard to other groups and

one’s own group, with problems of development of attitudes and conduct during

childhood and adolescence, with problems of housing, and the change of the

legal structure of the community; it deals with problems of status and caste,

with problems of economic discrimination, with political leadership, and with

leadership in many aspects of community life. It deals with the small social body

of the family, a club or a friendship group, with the larger social body of a school

or school system, with neighborhoods and with social bodies of the size of a

community, of the state and with international problems.

We are beginning to see that it is hopeless to attack any one of these aspects of

inter-group relations without considering the others.

One also needs to be aware that French and Raven’s Power/Interaction Model

(French and Raven, 1959; Raven, 1965), on which much of the literature on power

and politics is based, owes much to Lewin’s work (Raven, 1993). French was a longtime

collaborator of Lewin and Raven studied at the Research Center for Group

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Dynamics in the 1950s. Both have acknowledged the importance and influence of

his work on their perspective on power (House, 1993; Raven, 1993, 1999).

Criticism 4

Lewin is seen as advocating a top-down, management-driven approach to change

and ignoring situations requiring bottom-up change (Dawson, 1994; Kanter et al.,

1992; Wilson, 1992).

Response 4. Lewin was approached for help by a wide range of groups and


They included representatives of communities, school systems, single schools,

minority organizations of a variety of backgrounds and objectives; they

included labor and management representatives, departments of the national

and state governments, and so on. (Lewin, 1946, p. 201)

He clearly recognized that the pressure for change comes from many quarters, not

just managers and leaders, and sought to provide an approach which could accommodate

this. However, regardless of who identified the need to change, Lewin

argued that effective change could not take place unless there was a ‘felt need’ by

all those concerned; he did not see one group or individual as driving or dominating

the change process but saw everyone as playing a full and equal part (Lewin,

1947b). He believed that only by gaining the commitment of all those concerned,

through their full involvement in the change process, would change be successful

(Bargal et al., 1992; Dickens and Watkins, 1999; French and Bell, 1984). Consequently,

rather than arguing that Lewin saw behavioural change as a top-down

process, it would be more accurate to say that Lewin recognized that it could be

initiated from the top, bottom or middle but that it could not be successful without

the active, willing and equal participation of all.


Lewin undoubtedly had an enormous impact on the field of change. In reappraising

Lewin’s Planned approach to change, this article seeks to address three

issues: the nature of his contribution; the validity of the criticisms levelled against

him; and the relevance of his work for contemporary social and organizational


Looking at Lewin’s contribution to change theory and practice, there are three

key points to note. The first is that Lewin’s work stemmed from his concern to find

an effective approach to resolving social conflict through changing group behaviour

(whether these conflicts be at the group, organizational or societal level). The

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second point is to recognize that Lewin promoted an ethical and humanist

approach to change, that saw learning and involvement as being the key processes

for achieving behavioural change. This was for two reasons: (a) he saw this

approach as helping to develop and strengthen democratic values in society as

whole and thus acting as a buffer against the racism and totalitarianism which so

dominated events in his lifetime; (b) based on his background in Gestalt psychology

and his own research, he saw this approach as being the most effective in

bringing about sustained behavioural change. The last point concerns the nature

of Lewin’s work. Lewin’s Planned approach to change is based on four mutuallyreinforcing

concepts, namely Field Theory, Group Dynamics, Action Research and

the 3-Step model, which are used in combination to bring about effective change.

His critics, though, tend to treat these as separate and independent elements of

Lewin’s work and, in the main, concentrate on his 3-Step model of change. When

seen in isolation, the 3-Step model can be portrayed as simplistic. When seen

alongside the other elements of Lewin’s Planned approach, it becomes a much

more robust approach to change.

We can now examine the criticisms made of Lewin’s Planned approach to

change. The main criticisms levelled at Lewin are that: (1) his view of stability and

change in organizations was at best no longer applicable and at worst ‘wildly inappropriate’

(Kanter et al., 1992, p. 10); (2) his approach to change is only

suitable for isolated and incremental change situations; (3) he ignored power and

politics; and (4) he adopted a top-down, management-driven approach to change.

These criticisms were addressed above, but to recap:

(1) There is substantial evidence that Lewin (1947a, p. 199) recognized that:

‘Change and constancy are relative concepts; group life is never without

change, merely differences in the amount and type of change exist’. There

is also a substantial body of evidence in the social, and even physical sciences,

to support Lewin’s 3-Step perspective on to change (Elrod and

Tippett, 2002; Hendry, 1996).

(2) As Dickens and Watkins (1999, p. 127) observed: Lewin’s approach is ‘. . .

intended to foster change on the group, organizational and even societal

levels’. In the main, he saw change as a slow process of working with and

through groups to achieve behavioural and cultural change. However,

writers as diverse as Quinn (1980, 1982) and Kanter et al. (1992) have recognized

that an incremental approach can achieve organizational transformation.

Lewin also recognized that, under certain crisis conditions,

organizational transformations can be achieved rapidly (Kippenberger,

1998a; Lewin, 1947a). Nevertheless, in the main, even amongst Lewin’s

critics, the general view is that only structural and technical change can be

achieved relatively speedily (Dawson, 1994; Kanter et al., 1992; Pettigrew

et al., 1989, 1992; Wilson, 1992).

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(3) Given Lewin’s concern with issues such as racial and religious conflict, the

accusation that he ignored the role of power and politics is difficult to

sustain. One of the main strengths of Field Theory and Group Dynamics

is that they identify the forces within and between groups and show how

individuals behave in response to these. In addition, the iterative, investigative

and learning approaches which lie at the heart of Action Research and

the 3-Step model are also designed to reveal and address such issues (Bargal

and Bar, 1992).

(4) The issues Lewin sought to tackle were many and varied (Cartwright, 1952;

Lewin, 1948a). Lewin’s sympathies were clearly with the underdog, the disadvantaged

and the discriminated against (Cooke, 1999; Marrow, 1969). His

assistance was sought by a wide range of parties including national and local

government, religious and racial groups, and employers and unions; his

response emphasized learning and participation by all concerned (Lewin,

1946). In the face of this, the charge that he saw change as only being topdown

or management-driven is difficult to sustain.

Lewin’s critics have sought to show that his Planned approach to change was simplistic

and outmoded. By rejecting these criticisms, and by revealing the nature of

his approach, this article has also shown the continuing relevance of Lewin’s work,

whether in organizations or society at large. The need to resolve social conflict has

certainly not diminished since Lewin’s day. Nor can one say that Lewin’s approach

seems dated, based as it is on building understanding, generating learning, gaining

new insights, and identifying and testing (and retesting) solutions (Bargal and Bar,

1992; Darwin et al., 2002). Certainly, there seems little evidence that one can

achieve peace, reconciliation, co-operation or trust by force (Olsen, 2002). Likewise,

in organizations, issues of group effectiveness, behaviour and change have

not diminished in the half century since Lewin’s death, though they may often

now be labelled differently. However, as in Lewin’s day, there are no quick or easy

ways of achieving such changes, and Lewin’s approach is clearly still valuable and

influential in these areas (Cummings and Worley, 1997). This can be seen from

the enormous emphasis that continues to be placed on the importance of group

behaviour, involvement, empowerment (Argyris, 1992; Handy, 1994; Hannagan,

2002; Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001; Kanter, 1989; Mullins, 2002; Peters, 1993;

Schein, 1988; Senge, 1990; Wilson, 1992). Indeed, the advent of the complexity

perspective appears to be leading to a renewed interest in Lewin’s work (Back,

1992; Kippenberger, 1998a; MacIntosh and MacLean, 2001; Tschacher and

Brunner, 1995).

In conclusion, therefore, though Lewin’s contribution to organizational change

has come under increasing criticism since the 1980s, much of this appears to be

unfounded and/or based on a narrow interpretation of his work. In contrast,

the last decade has also seen a renewed interest in understanding and applying

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his approach to change (Bargal and Bar, 1992; Elrod and Tippett, 2002;

Hendry, 1996; Kippenberger, 1998a; MacIntosh and MacLean, 2001; Wooten

and White, 1999). In many respects, this should not come as a surprise given the

tributes and acknowledgments paid to him by major figures such as Chris Argyris

(Argyris et al., 1985) and Edgar Schein (1988). Above all, though, it is a recognition

of the rigour of Lewin’s work, based as it was on a virtuous circle of theory,

experimentation and practice, and which is best expressed by his famous dictum

that ‘. . . there is nothing so practical as a good theory’ (Lewin, 1943–44,

p. 169).


12th September 2007 From India, Mumbai
can anyone please provide me the ebook "ADKAR: a model for change in business, government and our community" ? Ayesha
1st April 2010 From Bangladesh, Dhaka
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