Kurt Lewin and complexity theories: back to the future?

8 August 2016

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 self-organizing systems.

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Though there are some who do take this view, there are others who point to the similarities between Lewin’s work and that of complexity theorists. In order to examine these conflicting views, the article begins by reviewing Lewin’s Planned approach for change and arguing that it is a more robust approach than many of its detractors acknowledge. This is followed by a review ofthe literature on complexity theories which draws out the main implications of these for organizational change. The discussion of the two approaches which follows argues that there is common ground between the two which can fruitfully be built upon.

The article concludes by arguing that if the complexity approach is the way forward for organizations, then they may have to return to Lewin’s work in order to implement it: very much a case of ‘back to the future’. KEY WORDS: Kurt Lewin, planned change, eomplexity theories Introduction Change is a constant feature of organizational life and the ability to manage it is seen as a core competence of successful organizations (Bumes, 2004b). However, there are significant differences in how it is perceived: is it incremental, punctuated or continuous; can it be driven from the top down or is it an emergent process?

(Quinn, 1980,1982; Gersick, 1991; Wilson, 1992; Romanelli and Tushman, 1994; Greenwald, 1996; Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997; Dawson, 2003). These differences are the product of the changing organizational landscape of the last 20 years, where globalization, technological innovation and economic fluctuations have led to a desperate search for increased competitiveness through more and more radical forms of change (Cooper and Jackson, 1997; Kanter et al. Correspondence Address: Manchester School of Management, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, Manchester, M60 IQD, UK. Email: Bemard. [email protected] ac.uk 1469-7017 Print/1479-1811 Online/04/040309-17 © 2004 Taylor & Franeis Ltd. DOI: 10. 1080/1469701042000303811 B. Burnes 310 1997; Peters, 1997; Beer and Nohria, 2000; Johnson and Scholes, 2002; Stacey, 2003). However, increasingly over the last decade, academics and practitioners have come to view organizations through the lens of complexity theory, and this is beginning to have a profound impact on view of how organizations should he structured and changed (Wheatley, 1992; Lewis, 1994; Bechtold, 1997; Morgan, 1997; Tetenhaum, 1998; Arndt and Bigelow, 2000; Black, 2000; MacLean, 2001; Fitzgerald, 2002a; Stacey et al., 2002). Complexity theory serves as an umbrella term for a number of theories, ideas and research programmes that are derived from different disciplines in the natural sciences (Rescher, 1996; Styhre, 2002; Stacey, 2003). To emphasize the diversity of viewpoints amongst complexity researchers, this article will follow Black’s (2000) lead and use the term complexity theories rather than theory.

Complexity theories are concemed with the emergence of order in dynamic non-linear systems, such as weather systems, operating at the edge of chaos: in other words, systems which are constantly changing and where the laws of cause and effect appear not to apply (Wheatley, 1992; Beeson and Davis, 2000; Haigh, 2002). Order in such systems manifests itself in a largely unpredictable fashion, in which pattems of behaviour emerge in irregular hut similar forms through a process of self-organization, which is governed by a small number of simple order-generating rules (Tetenbaum, 1998; Black, 2000; Macintosh and MacLean, 2001).

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 to see why it has not only survived but prospered. … (Kanter et al. , t992: 10). Some commentators have seen the advent of complexity theories as strengthening the case against Lewin (Stacey, 1996; Styhre, 2002). Conversely, others have noted similarities between Lewin’s work and that of complexity theorists (Back, 1992; Tschacher and Brunner, 1995; Kippenberger, 1998a; Macintosh and MacLean, 2001; Flrod and Tippett, 2002).

This article supports the latter view, arguing for the continuing relevance of Lewin’s work in the light of complexity theories. The article begins by revisiting Lewin’s Planned approach to change. 311 Kurt Lewin and complexity theories then goes on to examine complexity theories and change. The study then identifies common ground between Planned change and complexity theories. It concludes that Planned change can provide a vehicle for implementing a complexity approach to organizations. Kurt Lewin and planned change

Few social scientists can have received the level of praise that has been heaped upon Kurt Lewin (French and Bell, 1990; Ash, 1992; Bargal et ai, 1992; Tobach, 1994; Dent and Goldberg, 1999; Dickens and Watkins, 1999). Indeed, his reputation was such that when Edward C. Tolman gave his memorial address for Kurt Lewin at the 1947 Convention of the American Psychological Association (quoted in Marrow, 1969: ix), he stated that: 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.

Echoing this praise some 40 years later, Edgar Schein (1988: 239) referred to him as ‘ . . . the intellectual father of contemporary theories of applied behavioural science … ‘ 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 (Marrow, 1969; Lewin, 1992; Tobach, 1994; Cooke, 1999). He believed that only the permeation of democratic values into all facets of society could prevent the worst extremes of social conflict that he had seen in his lifetime (Lewin, 1943b).

Lewin believed that the key to resolving social conflict was to facilitate Planned change through leaming, and so enable individuals to understand and restructure their perceptions of the world around them. 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: vii). As Bumes (2004a) has shown, Lewin’s Planned approach to change comprised four elements: Field Theory, Group Dynamics, Action Research and the 3-Step model of change.

Though these tend, now, to be treated as separate elements of his work (Wheelan et al. , 1990; Back, 1992; Gold, 1992; Hendry, 1996), Lewin saw them as a unified whole with all of them necessary to bring about Planned change (Allport, 1948; Bargal and Bar, 1992; Kippenberger, 1998a,b; Smith, 2001). Field Theory This is an approach to understanding group behaviour by mapping out the totality and complexity of the field in which the behaviour takes place (Back, 1992). Lewin stated that: ‘One should view the present situation—the status quo—as being maintained by certain conditions or forces’ (Lewin, 1943a: 172).

Lewin (1947b) postulated that group behaviour is an intricate set of symbolic interactions and forces that affect group structures and 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 B. Bumes 312 large, in the forces within the field (Lewin, 1947a). A field is ‘a totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent … ‘ (Lewin, 1946: 240).

Lewin believed that a field was in a continuous state of adaptation, which he termed ‘quasi-stationary equilibrium’ (Lewin, 1943a), and that ‘Change and constancy are relative concepts; group life is never without change, merely differences in the amount and type ofchange exist’ (Lewin, 1947a: 199). Group Dynamics Lewin was the first psychologist to write about ‘group dynamics’ and the importance of the group in shaping the behaviour of its members (Lewin, 1939; Allport, 1948; Cartwright, 1951; Bargal et al. , 1992).

Group Dynamics stresses that group behaviour, rather than that of individuals, should be the main focus of change (Bemstein, 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, 1988).

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