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1.1 Force-field analysis

Kurt Lewin
Figure 2 Kurt Lewin

In the mid-twentieth century Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist who worked in Germany and America, developed a theory called force-field analysis to think about the way in which changes made in the workplace succeed or fail (Lewin, 1947). It can be applied to any action planning process.

Lewin suggests that any attempt to make changes will involve forces in favour of change and forces against it. For change to occur successfully, the forces in favour must be stronger.

This is like a tug of war. If the forces on the left side are stronger than those on the right, then the change can go ahead.

This might not seem much different from the familiar ‘pros and cons’ idea, but pictures often express ideas more clearly than words. A force-field diagram helps you visualise the relative strength of the different forces, as you will see shortly. It lends itself to thinking about how you can weaken the team on the right, or bring in heavyweights to add to the one on the left.

There will almost always be forces in favour and forces against the changes that you are thinking about. For example, your dream job might feature a higher salary, but it might also involve more travel to work; or you might really enjoy doing the work, but you might not really trust the babysitter to care for your child as well as you do yourself; and so on.

Some forces will be quite significant; others might not have much effect. It is useful, once you have thought about what the main factors are, to estimate how much impact they might have on you achieving your target goal.

In a force-field analysis diagram, you can use arrows to represent the different forces, with the thickness of the arrows indicating the amount of impact. The thin arrows indicate fairly minor factors; the fatter ones indicate major influences (like hulks on the ‘tug-of-war’ rope).

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