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Kurt Lewin and complexity theories: back to the future?

Burnes B (2004) Kurt Lewin and complexity theories: back to the future?. Journal of Change Management, 4 (4), pp. 309-325.

Many writers acknowledge the significance of Kurt Lewin's contribution to organizational change. However, over the last 20 years, where the focus has been on rapid, transformational change, Lewin's work has increasingly become seen as outmoded and irrelevant to the needs of modern organizations. It might be expected that this tendency would increase as academics and practitioners draw on the work of complexity theorists to portray organizations as complex, dynamic, non-linear self-organizing systems. Though there are some who do take this view, there are others who point to the similarities between Lewin's work and that of complexity theorists. In order to examine these conflicting views, the article begins by reviewing Lewin's Planned approach for change and arguing that it is a more robust approach than many of its detractors acknowledge. This is followed by a review of the literature on complexity theories which draws out the main implications of these for organizational change. The discussion of the two approaches which follows argues that there is common ground between the two which can fruitfully be built upon. The article concludes by arguing that if the complexity approach is the way forward for organizations, then they may have to return to Lewin's work in order to implement it: very much a case of ‘back to the future'.

Kurt Lewin; planned change; complexity theories

Journal of Change Management: Volume 4, Issue 4

Author(s)Burnes, Bernard
Publication date31/12/2004
PublisherTaylor and Francis
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