The Ice Cube Theory of Change is a deceptively simple metaphor. Some might say it is too simple and that change is more complex. Perhaps it is, and yet there is deep learning to be gained from the practical application of this idea. And as it’s creator, Kurt Lewin – the Godfather of Action Science – once said, “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.”
In Lewin’s metaphor, there are three stages to effecting change: Unfreezing, Movement, and Refreezing. Think of an ice cube. It can be unfrozen, moved into any other shape that its volume will allow (this is the limit of it capability) and refrozen in that new shape. Lewin argued that before people can change, they must unfreeze. By this he means unfreezing their ways of being and doing. This starts with unfreezing their mindset. The changes in the way they then do things are then locked in or ‘refrozen’ into new ways doing. And so, we have new ways of being and doing.
But, are people like ice cubes?
Lewin suggest there are three things a change agent can do to check that somebody they are trying to help change is unfrozen:
- Disconfirm their world view – this is about providing hard evidence that they their mindset is not in the right place to take on the change, indeed that it is fixated in the wrong place
- Check for anxiety – here you are seeking to confirm they are feeling anxious about the facts you have just provided. If there is no anxiety, then there is no discomfort. If there is no discomfort, they are not unfrozen. They are literally frozen within their comfort zone and hence have not yet acknowledged the need to change, i.e. they still hold their existing world view that things are okay as they are
- Provide a psychological safety net – this is where the change agent offers to help them through the change, so they do not feel alone. Isolation is not the right environment for change. So, you must provoke anxiety and then offer to provide support to soothe it.
This has profound practical implications for managing change. Think, if you will, of a relatively commonplace change that people face in their working lives: a manager’s message to them that they must improve their performance. Yes, it’s the dreaded difficult conversation during a performance appraisal.
If you follow the unfreezing process, you are far more likely to achieve a change in performance than following any other method of having such a conversation. Re-read it carefully. It is NOT the oft-mooted sh*t sandwich – whereby difficult feedback is sandwiched between two good bits of feedback. This does not work. Unfreezing does!
And the principle applies to more transformational change too.
I often say that leading change is about getting three things right – clarity, support and consequences. Unfreezing is about clarity of expectations and agreeing the support required. The change itself comes from the change targets (managers, teams, organisations, whatever), with the support as agreed from the change agent (leader). Again, this is profound. The change agent is not there to drive change, rather she is there to remove blockages so that the people who are going to live with the change find it for themselves. The ice cube metaphor suggests that people can take on any change that is within their existing capability. Perhaps this is where the theory falters as we know, people can learn new things too! Or perhaps, we can extend the metaphor by pouring a little more water into the ice tray before we refreeze it?
Consequences must be put in place to freeze the changes in place. These include making it harder for people to revert to old ways of working (policies, business processes, etc), positive reinforcement, and negative consequences for those choosing not to take on the changes.
You will find many richer models of change and thousands of more complex tips, tools and techniques for managing change. Yet in most if not all of these, there is something simple at the core, and that is the ice cube metaphor.
OD Thought Leader: Ikujiro Nonaka (May 10, 1935 – )
Okay, I cheated a little. Ikujiro is his first name. Nonaka is a Japanese organisational theorist, who, along with Hirotaka Tekeuchi, proposed speedier and more flexible product development processes. These led to Japan’s rapid rise to technological product supremacy following the Second Word War and are the foundations of Agile and Scrum methods widely used in IT development (and beyond) today.
He also proposed a model of spiralling organisational knowledge accumulation that demonstrates the movement from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. This proceeds as knowledge accumulation through socialisation (e.g. apprenticeships), that is then formalised and externalised through explicit process design, embedded as organisational routines and learnt individually to become deeper tacit knowledge. And so the spiral deepens trough individual and organisational learning.
“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good men, are going to have ideas of their own, and are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.“
Recommended reading: Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi (1995) The Knowledge-creating Company (1995), Oxford University Press, Oxford.