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Kurt Lewin's Change Theory


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III. Kurt Lewin in The Classroom: Teaching the Management of Planned Change

The idea for a "planned change workshop" goes back to the mid 1960's when Richard Beckhard and I designed a program on "planned change" for the National Training Labs. The essence of our program was that participants should be involved in real projects which could be of one or two years duration, and that the time spent together should be devoted initially to learning diagnostic intervention tools and models and, thereafter, to reporting progress to each other. That program started with a one week workshop and was followed by quarterly meetings of three days duration. Participants were organized into teams geographically and were expected to meet regularly with each other to share problems and progress.

What Beckhard and I learned from this program is 1) to learn about managing change one must be involved in a real project, and 2) one of the most powerful sources of motivation to work through all the frustrations involved in managing change is to have to report regularly on progress to "team mates" and to the faculty. All of the participants noted during and after the program how important it had been to give quarterly progress reports, to have a chance at those times to rediagnose, to recalibrate their own situation and to share war stories and frustrations with others who were in the same boat.

Criteria for choosing the initial project were 1 ) something that the workshop participant was personally involved in and cared about; 2) something that would make a real contribution to the organization from which the participant came; and 3) something that was realistic in terms of being doable in the time allocated to the workshop, i.e. one or two years. We considered the workshop a success and felt we had learned what the essential components of such a learning experience had to be. But it was not until two decades later that I found a way to implement my own learning in the more traditional classroom environment.

1. The MIT One Semester Course on Managing Planned Change

In 1987 I decided to experiment with a version of the Beckhard/Schein model in the regular Masters curriculum of the MIT Sloan School. I offered a mini-course that ran for 10 weeks, three hours per week. Eventually it was expanded to a full 14 week long semester elective course for full academic credit. Enrollment in the first three years averaged around 25 students, but in the last year or so it caught on so I ended up in 1994 with three sections of 30 to 35 students each.

In the first session I emphasized that the core of the course was not the class time or reading, but two actual change projects--one personal and one focused on an organization and carried out by a group. The personal project asked each student to pick some personal change goal that he or she wanted to work on for the next 14 weeks. The first week's paper had to spell out the goals and the method that would be used to achieve them, including some system for appraising progress week by week. Each week a one page progress report had to be handed in to me detailing outcomes and any reactions or thoughts about the change process. These reports were private between me and each student and provided me an opportunity to react and coach, typically by asking questions and making suggestions. Reading 100 one page papers was time consuming but very engaging because each student was wrestling with real and personally meaningful issues--stopping smoking, losing weight, overcoming shyness, learning to talk more in large classes, improving relationship with spouse or a child, increasing reading speed, developing a more healthy balanced life style, overcoming chronic lateness, and so on.

The group projects were to be realistic efforts to make an organizational change somewhere in the MIT environment. At the opening session I collected data from the class on possible organizational change projects they might wish to undertake in small teams. Given that the project had to be completed in 14 weeks, we focused on organizations to which students had access already, which meant de facto that most of the projects were located in and around the MIT Sloan School.

We started with a brainstorming session on all kinds of things that could and/or should be changed around the school, followed by a joint critical analysis of what was feasible and worthwhile. My role in this was to provide a "sanity" or "reality" check on the ideas that were brought up. When we had a list of feasible projects we duplicated it and then, in the second class session, did a straw vote to see how many people were interested in which, to reduce the number down to roughly one-fourth the size of the class so that each team could consist of four or five students. Final choice of projects and signing on to the teams was the last step, usually accomplished by the third or fourth class session.  

In the end I only required that each team had at least two people and no more than seven or eight. It was essential that each student picked a project that he or she was genuinely motivated to complete. This process stood in sharp contrast to what most other classes were offering as projects where students selected from pre-arranged topics, sites, or problems instead of having to wrestle with what they would personally actually commit themselves to. Lewin's insight about the importance of involving the learner were not lost here.

Once the teams were formed, they met weekly during and after the class sessions and were required to submit a weekly progress report on specific goals selected, diagnostic thinking about the project, action steps taken, and results. Sample projects that were undertaken were to revise the particular curriculum of a key course on strategy to make it more international, to resurrect the European Club and to improve its process of helping students find jobs in Europe, to improve the responsiveness of the career development office, to reduce the bureaucracy of the MIT housing office, to fix a leak in the bridge between two buildings that had been left alone for the past three years, to develop a student lounge, to redesign the form on which students gave feedback to faculty on their teaching, to increase the interaction between first and second year masters students, to increase the range of food offerings in the local student cafeteria, to create a lecture series that would expose students to some of the more prominent faculty at MIT, and so on.

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