Within just a few weeks everything around us has changed – how we live, work, and socialise. And while there is no playbook for what businesses do next, we do have a clear framework that can guide leaders through and beyond the lockdown.
What is a crisis but a period of dramatic change? When crises occur we turn to our leaders to guide us; and the challenge many leaders face is knowing when they should be reactive and when they ought to be proactive.
Understanding how leaders manage and create successful change can help us understand our current world. And it can also help business leaders bring about change in their organisations – something that they will be called upon to do as we emerge from lockdown.
But while we don’t have a playbook for the Covid-19 crisis, we do have a very firm framework for how organisations can create successful change.
During the Second World War, the US government called on the expertise of psychologist Kurt Lewin. Lewin had spent much of his career studying how organisations function, and specifically how they enact change. During his time working with the wartime American government, he honed his Change Model – a framework that can help leaders bring about successful change in their organisations.
If you want to truly understand something, you must try to change it.
– Kurt Lewin
Change and Understanding
Some 70 years later, we can see the key tenets of his Change Model in how our governments are responding to the current crisis. And we can look to this same model to see how business leaders can help their organisations manage the current period of change; and even pursue positive change as we emerge from the stricter aspects of the current restrictions.
One of Lewin’s key insights to the change process is that changing how an organisation works creates a more profound understanding of the principles, praxis, and culture of that organisation.
“If you want to truly understand something,” wrote Lewin, “you must try to change it.”
Having just gone through a period of change – albeit one enforced on us – we can all probably say we have a greater understanding of how our organisations work; aspects we want to keep and foster, as well as things we want to improve.
Leaders will face many challenges as their organisations emerge from lockdown. First and foremost will be restarting their businesses; the second will be responding to the new economic, business and market environments.
Both of these may require significant levels of business change, and Lewin’s Change Model may be the best framework to help us understand how we can manage this, and find new opportunities within it.
Lewin’s Change Model identifies three steps to creating successful change
The unfreeze stage is when leaders within the organisation realise that change – especially big change – is needed. This can be because of internal forces – such as ways of working that have become inefficient; or because of external forces – such as increased market competition.
This is the most difficult stage in the change process; change will be resisted by internal forces – such as old ways of working, politics, or established leadership structures – and many may see change as a threat to their power, and so resist it. This becomes especially difficult when the change process is controlled too tightly, and doesn’t involve people from across the organisation.
The key at this stage is creating a clear vision. Lewin argues that this vision should not just involve senior management but should be created with input from across the organisation. This is where most organisations fall down – they fail to adequately define their vision and/or they fail to involve the people who will be impacted by the change. And, indeed, employees often have insights into ways of working and customer behaviours that may not be visible to senior managers.
Once the environment for change has been created, only then can the process of affecting change happen. For this stage to be a success the organisation needs to not only focus on implementing the change but on communicating progress.
This communication must be broad and clear, describing what is happening and why. Those being affected by the change process need to be assured that their leaders have a plan and must be confident that this plan is being followed.
This needs to happen at a macro-level, where everyone has confidence that those in charge are doing their bit. But also on a micro-level, where everyone knows what role they have to play in the change and how this is contributing to the success of the change programme.
Because this stage involves the removal of existing ways of working it is often the most stressful; not only because systems around the employee are changing but because they must now change how they think about their role and their place in the organisation.
People cannot just be forced to adopt the new system, they must accept it; and accepting it is a process.
We have seen this in action, as national and local governments provide regular updates on the progression of the coronavirus and their response to it. Many governments realised that they could not force dramatic changes on their populations, so these have been communicated in advance and brought on gradually, helping people adjust and adopt them.
And this will be the process for how we exit the lockdown. The change to our ‘new normal’ will be gradual and communicated in advance.
Finally, once the change has taken place Lewin describes the process of freezing the change. The new status quo must be given time to embed so that new ways of working become routine for all.
A common failing at this stage is that leaders stop communicating with their employees. Having gone through the change process, employees are left wondering what it was all for. Who benefited? What do I get from this?
Equally at this stage not everything will run smoothly. Mistakes will happen and gaps in the change process will become clear. This is expected and should be communicated to employees and they should be given a process to raise concerns and provide feedback.
But once the process of change is completed that doesn’t mean that change must stop. The organisation should recognise that change is inevitable and should be embraced. Freezing isn’t the return to a static status, but the creation of a process that recognises and supports further iterative change.
Designing the ‘New Normal’
Our return to normality doesn’t have to be a return to old ways of doing things. There will be a new normal, and we, along with our national and business leaders, have a role to play in creating that ‘new normal’.
What are the take-outs for brands?
1. Lewin’s Change Model gives us a framework to help us understand what organisations and their customers are currently going through. It can also provide a framework to help business leaders navigate the current crisis and implement successful change in their organisations as we emerge from lockdown.
2. When we begin to emerge from lockdown, customers (having gone through this change) will have different needs and expectations. To help support customers, organisations must first understand their new expectations and behaviours – and since customers don’t yet know what these are we must proactively involve them in the change process to help both them and us define the ‘new normal.’ The organisations that do this successfully will be in a stronger position for the long-term.