19. The Best Model of Adaptive Change You’ve Never Heard of

Marcus Guest
Jul 31, 2017 · 6 min read

Nearly all theories of change management owe a debt to Kurt Lewin — the ‘founding father of change management’. Lewin’s model of change management underpins most other popular ones today — from Kotter’s ‘8-Steps of Change’ (1995) to Schein’s ‘Model of Change/Learning’ (2010). Most people will recognise Lewin’s ‘ice cube’ model of change — unfreeze, fix, refreeze — but most won’t know the two main problems with it:

  1. Lewin never spoke about these three steps — in fact, he never used the word ‘refreeze’ in any of his works. Ever. Therefore, giving the legitimacy of many popular modern models based on his work an air of ‘fake news’
  2. ‘Rigidly ‘refreezing’ is inappropriate in today’s complex world, that requires flexibility and adaptation⁠.’ (Unfreezing change as three steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s legacy for change management”. Cummings et al (2016))

Lewin, a German-American psychologist, had himself noted that the problems of ‘inducing change’ required ‘significantly more research to be carried out’. This means the current ’solution’ to the problem of change management — a linear three step model spawning an copycat industry of other ’n-step’ engineering models — appears to be a ‘beautiful lie’, or another unacceptable causal explanation [⁠1] — this one cleverly marketed by the consulting industry.

‘Traditional’ change management also takes the individual as the main unit of analysis — but anyone who has ever tried to change a partner, child or friend knows the impossibility of changing someone against their will. Yet organisations seek to change thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of people simultaneously — yanking them towards some ideal future state thought up by Executives advised by ‘no-skin-in-the-game’ consultants (N.Taleb) with workforce resistance overcome by PR, incentives or threats.

Is it any wonder many change management programs continue to fail? Isn’t it time for an approach based on the way human systems actually are — rather than the way we wished they were?

The ‘ice-cube’ approach views change as linear — a sequential procession to a better state. But people aren’t ants — they don’t march to a single drum. For example, when a new change initiative is announced some people won’t change because they haven’t understood what is being asked of them — others will not change as they lack the knowledge, skills and experience to deliver what is being asked of them — yet others will actively try and sabotage the change agenda as they vehemently disagree with it — while the biggest group of all will be those who look around at everyone else and question “why should I change if no-one else is?”

If, by some near-miracle a newer, better, transformed organisation does emerge from the change management process then the attempt to ‘freeze’ it again merely re-enforces the rigidity that the current change program has been trying to ‘unfreeze’. It prevents the organisation from evolving further and compels it to order another expensive re-set further down the road.

Thriving in a complex world requires adapting quicker than those rivals who are after the same resources. Organisations need to design for constant discovery and exploitation of new value — not repeating best practice, which is someone else’s past practice from another time and place.

Accelerating Through the OODA Loop

Colonel John Boyd was known as ’40 second Boyd’ —which legend suggests was the length of time it took him in a dog-fight to turn a disadvantageous position into an advantageous one. He did this by navigating what he called The OODA Loop more effectively than his opponent.

Boyd was more a talker than a writer, so his insights about change come to us from fragmented slides and impressions from the many people in the US military who listened to his lectures that sometimes stretched to 8–10 hours. This may explain its relative obscurity next to the popularity of Lewin’s (fake) three-step model — making it the best model of adaptive change you’ve probably never heard of.

OODA stands for Observing, Orienting, Decision, Action and the Loop emphasises that change is a continual process of learning and adaptation (not a linear process of unfreeze — fix — re-freeze). The OODA Loop avoids the elementary mistake of most change models by not trying to reduce a complex and messy world into neat boxes⁠ [2] but instead describing how individuals and groups of people — crews, organisations, entire populations — make sense of their complex world so they can act in it.

People who know about the OODA Loop usually understand just one of the many insights it provides: that all rivals (pilots in a dog-fight or firms in a market place) go through repeated cycles of Observation — Orientation — Decision — Action (hence the simplistic version in the header picture) and the one which navigates it quickest, wins. For in a dog-fight the pilot who navigates his Loop slower loses control of the situation — he’s forced to react to his opponents moves rather than being pro-active. If his opponent is feinting (in order to unbalance him) it causes a build up of mis-information that’s difficult to make sense of, rendering him ineffective at coping with his rivals subsequent actions — defeat becomes only a matter of time.

While there is much value in this simple insight it merely scratches the surface of the insights the OODA Loop provides — for it’s a guide to how people and organisations learn to prosper in a world of uncertainty.

The full version looks like this:

Subsequent blogs in this series will expand on each part in turn but it’s important to highlight at this stage that victory doesn’t belong to the quickest — sometimes going slow is the smart option (for example, when uncertainty is high and you can learn more from the early failures of others rather than trying to storm the castle yourself).

The key is knowing why to act.

The OODA Loop’s strength is in recognising the pervasiveness of uncertainty — that in a complex world, where novelty is perpetually emerging, there will always be more to learn than what we know⁠ today. [3] Therefore, learning how to adapt — coping with multi-dimensional uncertainty at speed and amidst competition for resources — is the key competitive weapon for organisations in the 21st century.

The impact of Boyd’s OODA Loop on the Marine Corps cannot be overstated. It’s a “framework for understanding the nature of human interactions with the environment to enable survival and growth of individuals and groups including uncovering tactics, operations, strategy, learning, and moral values.” (Shaping and Adapting. Unlocking the power of Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop. Major Paul Tremblay Jr (2015))

How your organisation organises itself to sense and respond to an uncertain and rapidly changing world will determine how well you meet today’s emerging challenges and tomorrow’s unknown ones as well. But this may require moving beyond linear models of change developed in the towers of academia and amplified by the ‘thought leadership’ of consultancies to lessons learned on the frontline — where surviving and prospering are matters of life and death.


Thanks for reading. If you found this article interesting please tap the 💚 and share so others can enjoy it too!

Narrative Insights is part of a global network working with leaders to apply insights from complexity science to ‘outflank wicked problems’. Harnessing complexity enhances agility — making you more adept at extracting value from an uncertain world by working effectively with how things really are — rather than only how you wished they were.

For more details on our ideas and work visit us on narrativeinsights.com or get in touch marcusguest@narrativeinsights.com

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade