Kurt Lewin and the Origins of OD - Prof Bernard Burnes, University of Stirling

Event Date: 1 March 2023

Speaker: Professor Bernard Burnes, University of Stirling

Time: 2.30-3.30pm

Location: Stenhouse Wing, SW1.06 or Zoom (email weo-pgr@strath.ac.uk for details)

“The recognition of the huge power of situation, context, priming, and construal is common ground. We are all Lewinians now, and in the context of policy behavioural economists are Lewinian as well.”  (Kahneman, 2013)

The above quote from the Nobel Prize-winning Economist Daniel Kahneman shows the enduring and widespread influence of Kurt Lewin.

It is generally agreed that Lewin’s planned approach to change, usually referred to as his 3-Step Model of Change, formed the platform on which OD was built, and that it still lies at the centre of OD practice. However, there are those who argue that at the time of his death in 1947, planned change was a tentative suggestion rather than a tried and tested change methodology. Others maintain that 1946 and the New Britain Workshops are where planned change came of age. Some, though, support 1939 as the key year for planned change; this was when Lewin moved his work from the laboratory to the real world – from studying change to bringing it about.  

In this presentation, it will be argued that field theory, which is at the core of planned change, originated in the period 1910 to 1914 when Lewin undertook his doctoral studies. By examining Lewin’s background and education, it will be shown that by 1914 Lewin was already drawing on field theory in physics, the holistic approach of Gestalt psychology and Cassirer’s philosophy of science to offer his own field theory-based approach to understanding and changing human behaviour. It was an approach that broke with the established associationist theories and the emerging behaviourist ones.  It was also an approach that lies at the core of his planned approach to change.

Therefore, rather than seeing planned change as something that emerged at the end of Lewin’s life, we can see that it was developed over more than 30 years, and at the time of his death, it was fully formed.


Published: 21 February 2023

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