Unfreeze / Refreeze: A Simple Change Model
The unfreeze/refreeze model is one of the simplest models for understanding organizational or social change. It was developed by Kurt Lewin, a physicist turned social scientist. Because of his professional background, he used physical science analogies to help explain social phenomenon.
His analogy deals with changing the shape of a block of ice. Say your brother-in-law has a large cube-shaped block of ice. He brought it home with the intention of making a round tire-shaped ring of ice with cherries in it to float in a big punch bowl. You told him he needed ice to make a ring so he went out and bought some. Now you have to tell him, “Hey, that’s no good, it’s the wrong shape.” So now he wants to change the shape. If the technique he uses to change it is to force the ice into a round ring, he’s not going to have much success. He can squeeze it as much as he wants, or pound it with a hammer. Most likely it will shatter.
If he tries to use force to make the change it will be resisted. Why? Because that block of ice is a system made up of inter-related H2O crystals in a lattice-work that will resist being changed. So what can he do to make the frozen H2O more receptive to a change in shape? Obviously, he makes it a liquid. He melts it in a big pan on the stove and it ends up as a great big puddle of water. At least now he has it in a stage where it is amenable to change. But the shape he wants it to be in is a round ring. So he pours the liquid water into a circular mold. It’s still the same chemical compound as it was when it was ice, but now it is a new shape. Unfortunately, it won’t hold this shape. If he picks it up (as your crazy brother-in-law might do), it will pour all over the floor. He has to do something to make it keep it’s new shape. He refreezes it. He adds cherries to it and puts in the fridge. After he refreezes it, he can take it out of the fridge and plop it into his punch bowl. He has successfully converted a cube of H2O into a tire-shaped ring of ice with cherries around its circumference. The three stages he went through are unfreezing, change and refreezing. You can use the same three stages to describe any change in an organization, especially social changes. The problem is, in an organization, we often forget one of the three steps. Typically, we forget step one, or step three. We do step two — we make the change — but we’re never really successful because there are three stages to consider, not one.
Credit: Robert H. Kent, Ph.D.