Challenging Lewin, and the foundations of OD

The following is my response to a post by a colleague on the OD Network list serve. I hope you agree it was worth re-posting here. After mentioning a few places we converged, I wrote the following:

I do think I diverge from your initial post in its implication that there is a need to in some way re-invent od because the old model is losing relevance (my words, not yours), and to the words you wrote below:

“When I suggested we need to “re-engineer OD” what I had in mind was more along the lines of re-examining our assumptions. I think many if not most of the methods (i.e., the tools and techniques) of OD are sound. It’s what ____ calls the “approach” that concerns me. For example, I think a key underlying assumption of OD can be found in the “unfreeze-change-refreeze” model. That suggests a degree of initial stability that needs to be de-stabilized so that change can be effected and then re-stabilized. Ho, ho, ho. Another, related, assumption can be found in force-field analysis (which also implies a degree of stability, even if it is dynamic stability. It presumes we can identify and then manipulate those forces so as to make the situation move in desired directions. Ho, ho, ho.”

I have noticed others posting similar comments over the years. I believe that your undertanding of the elements of Lewin’s theory that you are challenging and/or rejecting is different than how I understand the same theories (I’m not claiming I speak for Lewin by the way…I am only speaking for how I understand his theories). First off, to the extent that any stability is not an illusion (and that is debatable), there are indeed current conditions (beliefs, processes, behaviors, moods, etc) in any human situation that are stable, and indeed perhaps even stuck. There is also almost always value to be gained by shifting to a more desired/productive way of being/doing in some manner, and “locking that in” to the extent possible. That is the “freeze-change-unfreeze” model. It is a way to describe every instance when one moves from one state to another. It in no way implies that the future is fixed and unchanging, or that the past/present is totally stable. It’s simply a description of process. It’s what I do in every intervention.

Force Field analysis I use to get people focused on retraining forces, rather than leaping to solutions. They have deep and productive conversations when guided in this way. I think people can identify some of what is holding them back (we all have blind spots, including whatever blind spots I, the facilitator, bring), and that it is then fruitful to strategize on how to address those “forces.” When implementation of solutions to the retraining forces is well organized (part of my job is to help them organize implementation, borrowing from my father’s community organizing experience), then significant change is usually realized.

So since these concepts work for me, and for my clients, I’ll continue to use them. That doesn’t mean I don’t incorporate the new that I understand, such as EQ/brain science. Some of the new, such as self-organizing systems theory, I have always been interested in, but don’t think the application to human systems is all that useful. It leaves out the mammalian element of human nature, in which authority relations are a deep and I believe important organizing principle. So I ponder, incorporate what makes sense to me, and reject what does not, limited like all humans by my own knowledge/beliefs about how things are.

Again, maybe I’m misunderstanding what you are saying about Lewin. If so I welcome more information, as such comments have always left me scratching my head.



About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
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