Some musings on change management, prompted by a story told to me by a close friend, who we will call Zeus in order to protect their identity and that of their organisation. It concerns how organisations can overlook group needs at the expense of satisfying individual or organisational needs. And how too much effort is put into Refreezing a new state of affairs and not enough into Unfreezing in the first place (to use Lewin's model):
Zeus worked for one particular organisation as a senior HR leader for a long time and says it felt like being part of a family. A big change happened to that family that upset Zeus and which affected a large group of people within it, and he left when he felt he couldn’t influence what was happening any more. Zeus says he had a lot of conversations at the time that were supposed to help him deal with his feelings, and that he thought were helpful at the time - but developments since have made him realise they didn’t fully resolve those issues. He feels the organisation missed a trick in its change management programme by not allowing him to talk with others with similar feelings in the hope of resolving them for their entire group.
In short, there was a larger group of possibly up to 100 people who needed therapy, and no amount of re-positioning by the organisation and focusing on new values or new directions was going to make an impact on how that group was feeling, as it ignored the elephant in the room.
So Zeus left, and one by one lots of others have left too. When each person since has left, Zeus says there’s been a social gathering. Always in the same place at the same time, and he says these have felt a bit funereal, in that they were all there mourning the loss of something they all shared, but at the same time celebrating that life goes on.
He says that the social gatherings are nice events, very informal and very easy to be at, and the family feel they all had when working at that place carries on into the social setting. At times it’s easy to imagine they all still work together, or so he says.
But they don’t. And Zeus says they often spend some time discussing why that is and how they feel about it. Lots of people, lots of conversations.
To him, and to me, it’s clear that as a group they haven’t let go of their feelings about what happened, about why their family had to change and what that change was. Zeus says there were good business reasons for the change, but it’s clear that there’s still feelings of resentment and hurt about a lot of things, and that no individual has successfully managed to deal fully with them.
When we talk about models of change management we often recognise the change curve in individuals, and create strategies to manage that curve for those individuals. As organisations we look to models like Kotters Eight Steps or Lewin's Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze to help us move forward with change at a strategic level, often successfully.
But I wonder whether in these models of change we focus too much on the individual and the organisation, and ignore the groups and collective social sets. And if we focus too much on the Change-Refreeze and not enough on the Unfreeze, in helping people get ready for change.
The social gatherings Zeus attends are lovely (he says), and are always helpful because he get to talk to others who feel the same way. Who understand. It helps them all to move on.
But I wonder whether, if they had done this whilst they all still worked together, whether they would in fact STILL be working together and actively helping the organisation grow and change
When they did still work together, although some individuals like Zeus did get to talk about their feelings, they never did so together - only, he says, to "outsiders", and only post-change, never pre-change, and when they were together they ignored the elephant in the room and ignored how they were all feeling without tackling that head on.
Organisations provide EAP schemes for individuals, and have well crafted change management programmes, but we may be missing out the middle here - we might be missing a trick around group therapy.
So in managing change in organisations, yes - consider the organisation as a whole and it’s culture and structure. Yes - consider the individual and their approach to the change curve. But also consider the group or team, and how they may have a collective change curve to go through and a real need to talk to each other, not to people who they don’t know very well, about how the collective feels.
And when trying to change a culture, spend time Unfreezing people and groups from their current mindset before making any change and before trying to Refreeze in the new culture and mindset.
As Lewins model asserts, Unfreezing is as important as Refreezing, as individuals and groups need to be ready for change, and I’d argue that it’s even more important. Without doing the Unfreezing, any subsequent Change and Refreezing won’t entirely work.
Unfreeze for individuals, for teams and groups, and for the organisation.
In Zeus' case, there was a clear change happening and a lot of effort went into executing that change and Refreezing - but hardly any went into Unfreezing in the first place.
Small wonder the change left Zeus and his peers feeling cold, and on the outside of what was going on.