Kurt Lewin's dynamic approach rule

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This article by Dr Jean Neumann of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations is the first in a four-part series summarising selected principles from Kurt Lewin's work that are used by the Tavistock Institute in their consulting, research and evaluation work. Each article demonstrates Kurt Lewin’s continuing relevance today, using examples from the archive and from more recent projects. This article looks at Lewin's dynamic approach rule. Other articles in the series look at field theory, contemporaneity, and constructive method.

The label dynamic approach indicates the necessity of discovering multiple forces at work in any situation. This means that no matter where we enter an organisational development or change process we need to be prepared to use many levels of analysis to understand what is going on within the social system. What is affecting the people who are leading, managing and existing in the midst of the change and development?

Lewin's dynamic approach rule states that the 'elements of any situation should be regarded as parts of a system'. In other words, we find it useful as scholarly practitioners to assume that all component parts relate with each other forming a complex whole. We find it useful to assume that all parts connect somehow in ways to be discovered through action and study.

The dynamic approach rule challenges us to be concerned with multiple energizing or motive forces. At the minimum, this requires data to be collected and analysed at multiple levels of social analysis. As we consider the issues implicated in a particular change, we discipline ourselves to describe separate components and to assert how they might be influencing each other. No matter which level we enter – individual, group, inter-group, organisational or inter-organisational – we work to notice and hypothesize about connections across the boundaries of these levels.

Within the Tavistock Institute's archive, a study conducted by Gordon Lawrence and Eric Miller exemplifies the dynamic approach rule. They were asked by a government department to study the psychic and political constraints on the growth of industrial democracy in the UK. Their theoretical formulation started with the societal level at which European-wide legislation in favour of workers' councils within all businesses was under debate. As they gathered and worked with data, they noticed and made connections between societal forces and individual psychological forces. Particularly, they were able to show that feelings of failed dependency towards both employer and employee representative organisations resulted in insufficient trust in industrial democracy to challenge corporate resistance.

Another example coming from the Third Sector demonstrates the dynamic approach. Jean Neumann and Jacqueline McLemore consulted with a small charity organisation providing services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. What started as an evaluation for local government funders evolved into a developmental process that left the charity better situated in its evolving regional environment. An initial theoretical formulation linked conflicts between the two sub-units (a sexual assault hotline and a domestic violence shelter) to high anxiety about strategic debates threatening long-standing, familiar ways of working. By mobilising the jointly shared volunteers, interventions at Board, inter-group and small group levels resulted in an improved hotline and a network of safe houses replacing the labour intensive, expensive shelter.

Thus, Kurt Lewin's dynamic approach rule helps scholarly practitioners of organisational development and change to 'regard elements of any situation as parts of a system'. Instead of getting stuck at too narrow or too wide a level of intervention, this principle guides actions within and across the relevant elements. Contribution becomes possible to the practical concerns of people in the immediate situation. The opportunity also exists to contribute more broadly to social science understanding about unique issues within particular sectors.

Journal article

Neumann, J. Kurt Lewin at the Tavistock Institute. Educational Action Research, 13 (1) 2005, pp.119-136
Available online on the Tavistock Institute website, with permission of the publisher Taylor & Francis, at
http://www.tavinstitute.org/lectures_and_presentations/pdf/kurt-lewin-dynamic-approach-rule-2
doi:10.1080/09650790500200271