Did you know that the more things change, the more your leadership is needed? The forces in the outside environment are changing so rapidly that organizations need to have leaders at all levels who can regularly lead teams of people through change. The better you develop the skills needed to lead change, the more successful you will be.

There is a very old expression that often comes to mind, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” And the funny thing about change leadership is the basic concepts have not changed over the years. Sure, there are hundreds of books and articles published about change, but most of them, in one way or another, follow the three phases developed by Kurt Lewin in the mid-1900s.

Here are the three phases with steps a leader can follow to lead change in their area:

  1. Unfreeze current behaviors – This phase prepares people to change. The leader should (a) communicate why change is necessary and why the current way of doing things needs to change; (b) communicate what the future behaviors should be and the benefits or vision of what will follow; and (c) create a sense of urgency.
  2. Change – This phase includes (a) modeling the behavior and training people; (b) refining the new behaviors as people learn what works (c) setting new standards/outcomes; and (d) maintaining a positive attitude and work culture.
  3. Refreeze new behaviors – This phase cements the new behaviors into the culture. Leadership behaviors should include celebrating early successes and then matching rewards and structure to the new behaviors.

Example – Work Opportunities Unlimited. Our company, Work Opportunities Unlimited, is an employment services company that matches people with a wide variety of skills to the specific hiring needs of employers. With over 30 years of experience, we have developed over 20,000 job matches and currently have well over 1,000 employer relationships. Although we are very successful at developing employer relationships, we recognized a need to change how we executed our business development strategy in our Career Services Division. This need for change came from such external forces as rising gas prices and the wider use of the Internet. Fortunately, we had developed three competencies over the past few years we could use to support the change: (a) a proprietary, Internet-based database for collecting all sorts of client information; (b) a telephone-based sales process used in our staffing division; and (c) a team of well-trained market directors (managers), who knew how to lead.

Here is how competent directors led the change in their markets: 

  1. Unfreeze Stage – The Directors held meetings with their existing teams and communicated why changes were being made and what the new behaviors were going to be (for example, telephone calls to employers replaced in-person cold calling). They described the benefits (fewer miles on cars, appointments in advance makes first meetings more professional) and the “vision” (more successful client placements). Finally, they created a sense of urgency by scheduling phone blitzes and training within two weeks.
  2. Change Stage – Directors held group telephone “blitzes” where they trained team members what to say. They modeled the activity and showed teams how to use the Internet database to research employers. They showed them how to use the database system to organize their follow-up tasks and activities. They set goals for each blitz and recapped their success at the end of each session. They set monthly goals for team members and used only the database to track results. In addition, the Company began holding semi-monthly conference calls to share successes from each market and to increase accountability.
  3. Refreeze Stage – Directors celebrated successes at the end of every “blitz.” By measuring team member development activity using data coming out of the database, Directors were able to reinforce the behavior of entering information into the database. All team members are now measured based on this activity, which is refreezing the new behaviors.

The change effort at Work Opportunities Unlimited began in July 2011 and has had great results. Placements are up 26% and team member mileage productivity is up 11%.

Cisco Video on Change. I think this six-minute video by Cisco does a nice job of showing us an example of using the three phases to make changes within a small team. You’ll notice they rename the three phases “prepare, implement, and manage”.

As a leader, I encourage you to practice using these three phases to lead your team through a change. Since the primary function of leadership is to lead change, you can look for future articles and postings on the same topic.

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