Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to Change: A Re-appraisal


Bernard Burnes, Manchester School of Management, UMIST, Manchester M60 1QD, UK (Bernard.Burnes@umist.ac.uk).


abstract The work of Kurt Lewin dominated the theory and practice of change management for over 40 years. However, in the past 20 years, Lewin's approach to change, particularly the 3-Step model, has attracted major criticisms. The key ones are that his work: assumed organizations operate in a stable state; was only suitable for small-scale change projects; ignored organizational power and politics; and was top-down and management-driven. This article seeks to re-appraise Lewin's work and challenge the validity of these views. It begins by describing Lewin's background and beliefs, especially his commitment to resolving social conflict. The article then moves on to examine the main elements of his Planned approach to change: Field Theory; Group Dynamics; Action Research; and the 3-Step model. This is followed by a brief summary of the major developments in the field of organizational change since Lewin's death which, in turn, leads to an examination of the main criticisms levelled at Lewin's work. The article concludes by arguing that rather than being outdated or redundant, Lewin's approach is still relevant to the modern world.