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Kurt Lewin's Change Theory


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My Multiple Roles

I served as the animator, teacher, monitor, coach and consultant. In the initial three hour session I provided the structure, the tasks, the rules, and the challenge. The bulk of the time in class was devoted to explaining how things would work, convincing the class that these projects were for real and that at our last session we would all share what was actually accomplished. Students were so overtrained to be passive that animating them to get involved was, in fact, the first challenge. The most important element of that process was to convince students that I meant it--that they actually had to choose their own projects and commit to them.

Teaching. Starting with the second class I played a teacher role in providing various diagnostic models for the students to use in analyzing their individual and team projects. I suggested a number of books and asked people to read as much as possible early in the 14 week period since all of the diagnostic material was relevant up front. At the same time I gave weekly reading assignments to focus us on relevant materials during the first half of the semester. Diagnostic models such as the Beckhard/Harris change map, force field analysis, role network analyses, and the Lewin/Schein stages of change were presented in the early weeks and rediscussed at later sessions so that the groups would have all of the tools available early on but could revisit them as they became more relevant.

A major chunk of time was devoted initially to the concept of process consultation because the change teams would have to operate without formal position power. I argued that their best chance of forming into effective teams vis-s-vis each other and their change targets, was to define themselves initially as internal process consultants who would have to develop some kind of access and a constructive relationship with their selected change targets. I also pointed out that this way of defining planned change was virtually synonymous with how one might define the process of management itself, except that one did not have formal position power. In this context I also reminded students that most managers report that having position power is not enough to make planned change happen.

Part of each class during the remainder of the course was devoted to short lectures on whatever seemed relevant at the time, war stories from my own experience, war stories that students told from their experience, and dealing with student questions on their projects. In dealing with questions I shifted my role increasingly to being a process consultant to the class and to the projects to highlight the importance of this role.

Monitoring and Grading. The monitoring role was most salient in how I dealt with the papers. For example, if a paper stated a goal of losing 30 pounds by the end of the semester, I might ask whether or not that was realistic, how much weight loss that would mean per week or per day, and how the person would monitor his or her own progress. If the goal was to overcome shyness I might ask the person to translate that into something concrete and measurable such as how many new contacts were made per week at parties, etc. I gave relatively few hints or suggestions unless the person specifically requested that kind of help, but concentrated on "process" monitoring: "How will you measure your progress toward your goal?" "Have you thought about how you will know at the end of the week whether you have made any progress?" "What will this mean for your daily behavior?" etc. Suggestions were always couched as questions: "Have you done a force field analysis relative to your change target?" "Who are the people in your role set and how will they react?" "Have you thought of involving your spouse in your project?" etc. If the logic of what was in the paper did not hold up I would question it or point out inconsistencies or lack of realism.

I made it clear at the outset that I expected everyone to do all the work, attend all of the classes, submit all of the papers, and that would result in a grade of A for every student. The only way to get a poor grade would be to shirk on the work or to put in obviously substandard papers. If students were absent or did not hand in papers two weeks running, I put notes in their boxes reminding them of their commitment. My goal was to create a climate where everyone would learn to the maximum of their own potential and would, therefore, merit the grade of A. I did not require that every project had to meet its change targets, but I did require that every project maximize its own learning.


Consulting and Coaching. These roles came up most often when I was asked questions about "what to do if....," usually in relationship to some "impossible" situation that the class member had experienced. Implicit in these questions was the assumption that since I was an expert on change I would be able to advise anyone on anything having to do with change. It is on these occasions that I found myself having to subtly shift my role to that of process consultant by asking inquiry types of questions to learn more about the reason for the question, the context, and what the questioner had already thought of. Sometimes I discussed the process directly by noting that the question was putting me into an expert role that I was not prepared to fulfill.

If team members asked me what do in relation to some aspect of their specific project, I attempted to get them to think it out with my help rather than giving them an "expert" answer. Or I would provide a number of alternatives instead of a single solution if it was clear that I had to provide some level of expertise. The best way to get this across was to think of myself as a "coach" who would help with the projects but could not do the actual work.

The best setting for coaching was when one group was asked to consult to another group, an activity that I started midway into the course. Sometimes I would role play the consultant before asking class members to do it, but the best learning actually arose when groups consulted with each other. Inevitably the consultants would make ineffective comments, or ask confrontive questions, or in some other way create a tense rather than a helping relationship. Once this happened I had two choices. I could let the interaction run its course and then get a reconstruction. A more effective intervention was to jump in immediately when something happened that seemed not to be optimally effective and provide an alternative or actually "role model" the alternative. This was direct coaching and was deemed by class members to be the situation in which they learned the most. In these settings I became the "process expert" because we were working on real situations in which I did indeed have more experience.

Dialogue. During the last two years I changed the structure of the class sessions by arranging us all in a circle, introducing the concept of dialogue, and starting each class with a "check-in" which involved asking each student in turn to say something about "where you are at right now" at the beginning of each class (Bohm, 1989; Isaacs, 1993; Schein, 1993). Though this was at times cumbersome because it took quite a while for 30 people to check in, the ritual itself became very meaningful and important to the class. The circle format and the dialogue assumptions made each session much more interactive and comfortable. It allowed me from time to time to also ask for a check out by going around the room near the end of class to see where people were at. If we were short of time we used a truncated version of check in by asking each person just to say two or three words such as "anxious but motivated," "tired and sleepy," "comfortable and eager," "distracted" and so on.

The Check-ln guaranteed that everyone would have a voice without having to raise their hand or figure out how to get in, a process that was especially important for the foreign students with language problems. One could see week by week how they become more comfortable during the check in and how this generalized to comfort in the remainder of the class session. Check-ln also revealed the class mood, things that were going on in the students' lives that were a distraction, fatigue levels and other factors that enabled us all to start class work on a more "realistic" level. It reinforced the dictums I had espoused--"always deal with the reality as you find it" and "go with the flow."

The Empathy Walk. At roughly eight to nine weeks into the semester I asked each class to form itself into pairs and to do the following exercise developed by Richard Walton and me at a workshop in the 1960's:

1 ) Talk with your partner to identify someone in the greater Boston area whom the two of you consider to be most different from the two of you. This will require you to think about how you are similar and along what dimensions someone would be really different.

2) Locate someone who fits your definition of someone most different and establish a relationship with that person so that you can spend a few hours getting into that person's world.

3) Be prepared to report back to the class what you learned.

We typically devoted one whole class session to the "war stories" students brought back and pulled out insights about the process of developing empathy. In addition each student wrote up their individual experience in the weekly paper that week.

Post class feedback consistently confirms that this is one of the most potent exercises of the semester because it forces confrontation of self and others at multiple levels. I assigned readings from Erving Goffman (1959, 1967) during these weeks to provide some conceptual handles. The ingenuity and cleverness of students that this exercise releases is dramatic. Students have found and built relationships with homeless people, street musicians, prostitutes, go-go dancers, trappist monks, convicted murderers, blind people, dying aids patients! successful celebrities, fishermen, hare krishnas, and so on. They discover, among other things, that the difference between them and their target is often less that their difference from each other. They realize how insulated their lives are from many real world problems, and how narrow their own perspectives are. They come face to face with social status and the dilemmas of having a privileged position in society, usually in the form of anxiety and guilt when they contemplate how one approaches a homeless person without "talking down to them." The discovery that some of these people have had or still have rich lives comes as a shock. In every case it opens the student up to becoming more inquiring and more sensitive to others, an essential step in becoming a successful change agent or manager.

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Project Reviews and Final Reports. Toward the latter third of the course I began a series of project reviews by inviting any groups that wanted some help to present their issues and have other groups or individual students be consultants. After a half hour or so of the group and their helpers operating in a fish bowl I would open it up to the floor to get other comments. As unhelpful comments were made such as unsolicited advice or even punishment for mistakes that the group was perceived to have made, I would intervene in a coaching mode to examine what was happening. As pointed out above, these turned out to be some of the most salient learning experiences.

During the last two class sessions, usually accompanied by cookies and drinks, each group reported its final outcomes, salient points about their process, and the major things they had learned from doing the project. It was at this point that many students revealed the importance of doing both a personal and group change project because their struggles with themselves in the personal project gave them real insights into the problems of resistance to change in the group projects. Different groups reported different kinds of learning but a common theme that ran through all of them was the importance of making a commitment to the change, having an audience in the form of faculty and fellow team members, and having weekly reports that forced constant planning and replanning, and provided opportunities to get feedback.

The real payoff to the students is to discover that they can actually produce changes that have an impact. To see the Sloan School adopt a new faculty feedback form, to see actual changes in the student cafeteria menu offerings, to be thanked by the MIT Housing Office for improving the system of dealing with applicants, to create a new physical space and student lounge, to create events that increase the interaction between faculty and students and have those events become regular annual events, and, most importantly, to hear the Dean's office make reference to future student projects as a positive force for change is the best feedback possible. My own assessment is that student teams well training in planned change methods can accomplish more than powerful committees of faculty and administrators who do not understand how change can and should be managed. Finally, what surprises us all most is that change can happen fairly rapidly. Fourteen weeks is enough to make fairly substantial changes happen. But the conceptual core must be the right one.

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