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Kurt Lewin's Change Theory


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The Conceptual Core of the Course: Diagnosis as Initial Intervention and Process Consultation as a Change Strategy.

The most important and most difficult concept to get across early in the course is that diagnosis is intervention and, in fact, that everything that involves the target system in any way is intervention. The discovery by students that diagnosis is intervention is paradoxical. In order to figure out what we need to change and discover where there is already some motivation to change that we can link with, we have to find out things about the present state of the system that we cannot know without inquiring. In order to gather such information we have talk to people in the system and ask them questions or conduct surveys. What is especially important to discover is where there is already motivation to change, where there is already survival anxiety that can be harnessed, because for many kinds of projects, students are not likely to be able to disconfirm or induce survival anxiety or guilt. On the other hand, if the change project involves organizational structures where the students are the recipients, they can often marshal potent disconfirming data and induce considerable survival anxiety.

The mental model at this stage that they are "just gathering preliminary diagnostic data" overlooks that the very people whom they have involved in the question asking may later be the prime targets whom they are ultimately trying to change. And, by asking those people various kinds of questions, they have 1 ) influenced their thinking by raising certain issues; 2) created an image in their minds of our own style and approach; and 3) created a degree of awareness and self- consciousness (possibly even defensiveness) because the targets now know that "there is a game afoot" and they are in some unknown way part of it.

Furthermore, as change agents, students often assume that they must remain fairly private about just exactly what they are trying to do, so they ask very broad inquiry type of questions, never once considering that the very vagueness of their questions may produce tension and anxiety in the interviewee precisely because he or she does not know what the change agents are after. How then do we gather the data necessary to determine what the present state of the system is without creating anxiety, misrepresenting ourselves, and unduly influencing the interviewee prematurely?  

The answer lies in working from several assumptions that underlie process consultation (Schein, 1987,1988) and what has more recently been called appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987; Shani & Pitman, 1991). From process consultation one derives the assumption that one must always work in the present reality and must understand the ebb and flow of that reality moment to moment, shifting roles as necessary. If a student is going to gather data from a faculty member, the student must understand that there are already strong role expectations on both sides and one must work initially within that set of expectations. For example, some amount of deference is expected and must initially be honored. The faculty member would expect to be asked questions that draw on his or her field of expertise and the student would be expected to listen politely.

On the other hand if the student knows that the faculty member knows that the student is part of a team that has been set up to redesign portions of the curriculum, the student can assume that the faculty member would be curious, possibly anxious, and would prefer to find out first from the student what this was all about before revealing his or her own information. In that case the student might open the discussion by volunteering a description of the project in terms that are informative and minimally threatening.

Alternatively, the faculty interviewee might seize the initiative and ask a bunch of questions about the project. In those preliminary questions, the student would have to assess how much anxiety is present and vary his or her tactics accordingly. It is in the design of those tactics where "appreciative inquiry" plays a role. One of the core assumptions of appreciative inquiry is to focus initially on what is working well and avoid criticism or problem foci. The interview might well start with what the faculty member is most proud of or what works best in the curriculum. If the interviewer focuses on success and what works well, he or she is creating psychological safety that will make it easier for both parties later in the interview to discuss problem areas, difficulties, things that need improvement. The prime data that the interviewer needs and wants is where the faculty member sees problems or has motivation to change, but the initial assumption has to be that he or she will not be ready to talk about problems until they feel safe with the interviewer, and they will only feel safe if the interviewer displays appreciation of what works well.

As the interview or interaction proceeds, the change agent must be constantly alert for changes in mood or feeling on the part of the interviewee, being especially sensitive to issues that may be threatening to the interviewee leading to a shutting down of the flow of information. It is in that ongoing interaction that the tactical use of inquiry questions, diagnostic questions, action oriented questions, and confrontive questions comes into play (Schein, 1987, p. 1 46).

The goal should be to create an interaction that will provide information to the change agent, begin to build trust with the potential change target, and begin to get the change target to think diagnostically and positively about the change project such that he or she will welcome another interview or interaction because their curiosity or their own energy for change has been aroused. In a sense the concept of "change target" has to become transformed in the change agent's mind into a "client" who seeks some help or into a "learner." The change agent has to become a facilitator of the learning process and the desired change has to be embedded in a "helping process" that makes sense to the learner.

In thinking this way we have come full circle once again to Lewin's original concept of involving the change target in the change process, but I have tried to elaborate and deepen our understanding of the issues involved in making that happen, especially when the change agent operates from a position of low status and minimal formal power.

Summary and Conclusions

As I reflect on the material in this essay I am struck once again by the depth of Lewin's insight and the seminal nature of his concepts and methods. I have only reflected on some aspects of Lewin's theory, but even those few aspects have deeply enriched our understanding of how change happens and what role change agents can and must play if they are to be successful. Lewin probably saw such issues more clearly because he was able to view U.S. culture from a European perspective. Important changes inevitably involve deep cultural and sub-cultural assumptions. The ability to perceive and appreciate the meaning of such tacit cultural assumptions is enhanced by working across several cultures. If we want to enrich our understanding of these dynamics further, we also should become cross- cultural learners, to expose ourselves to different cultures and begin to reflect on what it means to try to change cultural assumptions. We may then discover why "change" is better defined as "learning," why cultures change through enlarging and broadening not through destruction of elements, and why the involvement of the learner is so crucial to any kind of planned change or, as we might better conceptualize it-- "managed learning."


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