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Lewin, Push and Pull

Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 54: Lewin, Push and Pull


Kurt Lewin is one of the forefathers of modern change management and defined one of the basic change models that is used today. It has three simple stages, unfreeze, move and refreeze, that are surprisingly like the process used in soft martial arts like Aikido and Tai Chi.




In martial arts where the goal is to throw or push someone, as opposed to striking them, the first step is to destabilize them. If you just grab someone and try to move them and they are well rooted, your efforts will be something akin to trying to push over a tree.

Unfreezing, or ‘breaking root’ as it is called in Aikido, means moving someone so their centre of gravity is nearing the point at which they will tip over if they stay where they are. This forces them to move. At this stage, the direction may not be clear. However, once they are in that wobbly state, it is far easier to move them on.

A term used in business is ‘burning platforms’. This is a reference to a situation when an employee on the Piper Alpha North Sea oil platform deliberately jumped off the blazing platform into a freezing sea and almost certain death many feet below. Amazingly, he was rescued. When interviewed, he explained that it was the choice between certain death and probably death that made him jump.

Creating deliberate crises (or at least apparent ones) are a way of generating burning platforms within businesses. They force people to at least stop what they are doing and be prepared to do something they would previously not have considered.



Unfreezing may create motion, but it does not necessarily create motion in the right direction. When a dog runs into a flock of sheep, the sheep do not neatly trot in one direction; they scatter in all directions, just seeking to get away from the dog.

The next stage is in moving people is to get them to move in the right direction. In martial arts, this is easy, you just move them, whilst maintaining a sensitivity for them trying to put down roots too soon.

One way of moving people in business is to show how attractive the new future is – typically with motivating visions of the ‘bold new world’. However, the bold visions sometimes do not work. If they are attractive, then the mystery of resistance may well be because the transition is looking too difficult and is obscuring the enticing future. In these cases, you can work to make things easier, especially during the early stages of beginning the transition.



The final step in Lewin’s method is to ‘refreeze’, returning to the stable state where you know where you are and can focus your full attention on everyday work. In martial arts, you do not let go of the person until they are where you want them and they are not going to suddenly attack you. In soft martial arts you also ensure they will not fall or otherwise harm themselves.

Refreezing actions include defining standards, documentation, training, processes and so on. You also need to make sure that people are not pulled back to the previous stage. Ways of doing this is ‘burning bridges’, removing any method by which people can return, or ‘scorched earth’, leaving nothing there for them to return to.


Pushing and pulling

Strategies that cause people to move away from something are called ‘push’ strategies. They are typically useful in unfreezing, but after that can be counter-productive. If you push someone, they are actually trying to go in the opposite direction. This can be tiring and, like ‘herding cats’, as change is sometimes described, it is seldom a winning strategy for getting everyone past the post in time.

The alternative to push is pull. In ‘pull’ strategies, you stand in front of the person enticing them forward, for example with the motivating visions discussed above.

Push and pull can be two sides of the same coin, like the infamous carrot and stick. This can cause a problem where people see it in this way, for example where carrots are seen as bribes.  With subtle use of psychological methods, however, they can be convinced to fully own their own futures and consequently change under their own steam.


Slush puppies

These days, work is no longer made up of long periods of stability punctuated with short periods of change. Not only has the ratio reversed, but in many industries change is very much the non-stop norm. This does not eliminate Lewin’s model but it may change it in some of the situations in which you are working.

Rather than spending a lot of effort re-freezing people and systems hard, you may find it better to keep them in a more ‘slushy’ state. It is certainly good to gain some rest between changes, but putting a great deal of effort into documentation and systems definition may actually be counter-productive if the next unfreezing is just around the corner.

This is of course is a challenge for any change agent and quality manager, but if you can keep your people both slushy and focused, they will, overall, be happier puppies and you will be able to make the change next time even more quickly.


Next time: Importance-performance grid


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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