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Understanding Change Management: The Science of Change

8 min read2023-04-04

How do organizations embrace positive change effectively? The answer is change management.

Change management is an interdisciplinary practice that facilitates directed, lasting change for individuals and teams. Combining elements of business management, philosophy, and psychology, change management is the missing piece between where your team is now, and where you know they need to go.

Three basic principles of change management

Originally developed and proposed by psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1920s, the “Three Step Change Model” continues to influence change management thinking to this day.

The three steps in this model are:

  • Unfreezing, where processes become destabilized and teams grow energized for change;
  • Changing, where new processes are introduced and explored collaboratively;
  • Refreezing, where processes are set and confirmed.

Taken as a whole, it’s a process that dissolves rigid organizational structures, builds up potential energy to facilitate change, then re-shapes and solidifies the organization once the changes have been put in place.

This process has been expanded upon, edited, critiqued, and otherwise modified into dozens of new models over the past century, but in most cases the principles remain the same.

The science of change

Change isn’t limited to humans and organizations. Our universe is always in flux, experiencing chemical and physical transformation. In fact, many of the reactions we may have experienced in high school chemistry class mirror the three principles of change management. We’ll use science as a framing tool to explore change in more detail.

Unfreezing: energy transactions and state change

Quick! Name three phases of matter!

For those who skipped elementary school science class, the answers are solid, liquid, and gas. When we teach kids about matter, we usually start with the safest and simplest chemical available to us: water.

Water can be liquid, solid in the form of ice, or gaseous in the form of vapour. Each time water changes state — transitions to a different form of matter — a transaction occurs. An energy transaction.

To melt ice into water, we introduce energy. There are plenty of ways to measure energy; in a lab setting, you’d probably express it as joules/gram or some other metric measure. My background is more trade school than engineering class, so I’ll use BTUs, or British Thermal Units, defined as the amount of energy required to increase one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.

Clear as mud? Good.

We know that water freezes at 32F. Did you know that 32F is also water’s melting point?

The way it works is this. Raising the temperature of a pound of -10F ice by one degree only takes a single BTU. But melting one pound of 32F ice takes 144 BTU. Liquid water is much more energetic than frozen water, so the water won’t change state until it’s acquired enough energy to do so.

Likewise, to turn water to ice we need to remove 144 BTU of energy from each pound of 32F water, but only one BTU for each subsequent degree by which we cool the water. To turn water into steam is even more energy intensive: it takes 970 BTU to create one pound of steam, assuming the liquid water is at its boiling point of 212F. This is actually the reason why steam burns can be so dangerous: steam has a massive amount of energy to transfer, much more than the equivalent amount of 212F water. When it touches skin, it releases that energy into your body very quickly as it condenses.

What does this tell us about organizational change?

Now let’s tie things back together. In change management, we have three steps: unfreezing, changing, and refreezing. If we frame this three step system as a physical state change, from ice to water to ice again, we see two major energy transactions: adding energy to facilitate melting, then removing energy to refreeze.

This is exactly how change management works. Instituting change doesn’t happen without an expenditure of energy. When significant change occurs, the most difficult obstacle tends to be inertia — inability or unwillingness to make a change because of how easy it is to continue the way things have always been. As managers, we need to find the energy to facilitate change. This might mean freeing up team resources to focus on the internal challenge, planning change cycles for times when the team is rested and operating under capacity (ie, your slow season), or even adding temporary staff or contractors to allow permanent staff to adapt to the new process. After changes are completely integrated, we can remove the added energy to freeze things back in place.

Once your organization is unfrozen, you can enact change. Think of it like dissolving another chemical into your water — adding something useful to the composition of your organization before you re-freeze it to lock in the changes.

Solution and dissolution: the change phase

“Like oil and water.”

It’s a well-known phrase meaning ‘incapable of mixing’. In chemistry, two chemicals that cannot mix are called immiscible. The molecular structure of oil and water are incompatible: rather than blending together smoothly, the oil sticks to the oil and the water sticks to the water.

Instituting change can be a lot like mixing oil and water. The new ideas, processes, and technologies are fundamentally different from the old ways. It’s not enough to throw them together in a vessel and hope that when you come back, everything’s nice and blended.

If you try it, you might find that people fully bought into and advocating for change adopt the process readily, while less informed or more skeptical staff stick with what they know. You’ve got oil and water.

The good news is, there are ways to make oil and water mix.

For example, we know milk has fat — oil — in it. But it’s primarily water-based. It stays blended due to emulsifying agents found in milk. These chemicals create a bridge between fats and polar molecules like water, allowing them blend — and stay blended. Mustard can do the same for your salad dressings. Eggs do the same in your mayonnaise.

Solvents and solutes

In change management, we’re integrating something new into an existing organization. We can think of the organization as a vat of solvent — that which we will dissolve our changes, our solute, into. This is how we produce a solution.

Solutions are homogenous blends of two or more substances, meaning that the solute becomes integrated with the solvent. When we institute change, we do it to last. Our solution must not dissolve the moment we stop stirring!

Change and emulsification

For this reason, we may need an emulsifier to join our ‘old’ water with our ‘new’ oil. If we merely introduce new ideas, ask our teams to adopt them, and leave it at that, we haven’t really facilitated change. There are a variety of ways to ease the transition from old to new.

What we need to introduce is a binding agent that bridges the old and new. This may come in the form of expertise, like a consultant or process expert who can help team members see the value of change and provide a path of least resistance. It could involve an intermediate period of less radical change, allowing workers to adapt more slowly to the new paradigm. Maybe it’s a reward system that encourages adoption of a new process by offering prizes and incentives to early adopters.

In any case, there are techniques to reduce the challenge of blending old and new during the change phase.

Refreezing: solid but not static

The notion that we can control change, or that if we’re not actively changing we’re standing still, is overly simplified. It’s useful to imagine it this way, as we can break down change into components we understand.

Change is a constant. We can control some types of change in some ways, but we can never fully remove chaos from the equation. Change happens intentionally and unintentionally, at all times, to all things.

I say this because the idea of ‘refreezing’ implies that, once change has been implemented, the organization becomes totally static. It’s solid bedrock, immutable and fixed until the next unfreezing. That isn’t totally true.

Once an organization refreezes, it continues to change and evolve, albeit more slowly. Managers ought to watch for any cracks that may form once an organization freezes — is the change we implemented gradually coming undone? What internal and external supports can keep everything locked in place for the long term?

Ultimately, a frozen organization ought to be like a copper statue. It still reacts to its environment, but the patina of its exterior protects the core of the organization from radical change. Like waves on the surface of a deep ocean, change in a frozen state should be fleeting and surface level.

Preparing for organizational change

Knowledge is the enemy of fear. When we understand something, be it change management, marketing, or anything else, we’re no longer filled with uncertainty. Where we had doubt, we instead find resolve — a path toward whatever goal we’re seeking to accomplish. Hopefully, this article helps you and your team understand change from a new perspective.

This is an introduction to the concept of change management. It’s a century-old discipline, so there’s lots more to learn! If you’re interested in discussing change management for your organization, reach out to us today. We can help you realize transformation in sales, marketing, and business intelligence.

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