What is the Calm Waters Metaphor?

Until recently the calm waters metaphor dominated the thinking of practicing managers and academics. The prevailing model for handling change in calm waters is best illustrated in Kurt Lewin’s three step description of the change process. According to Lewin, successful change requires unfreezing the status quo, changing to a new sate, and freezing the new change to make it permanent. The status quo can be considered an equilibrium state. Unfreezing is necessary to move from this equilibrium. It can be achieved in one of three ways: 1) The driving forces, which direct behavior away from the status quo, can be increased.
2) The restraining forces, which hinder movement from the existing equilibrium, can be decreased.
3) The two approaches can be combined. Exhibit The change Process


Once unfreezing has been accomplished the change itself can be implemented . However, the mere introduction of change does not ensure that it take hold. The new situation, therefore, needs to be refrozen so that it can be sustained over time. Unless this last step is attended to, it is likely that the change will be short lived and employees will revert to the previous equilibrium state. The objective of refreezing the entire equilibrium state, then, is to stabilize the new situation by balancing the driving and restraining forces. Note how Lewin’s three step process treats change as a break in the organization’s equilibrium state. The status quo has been distributed, and change is necessary to establish a new equilibrium state.

This view might have been appropriate to the relatively calm waters metaphor is increasingly obsolete as a description of the kinds of seas that current managers have to navigate. How does the White Water rapids Metaphor of change functions?
This metaphor takes into consideration the fact environments are both uncertain and dynamic. To get a feeling for what managing change might be like when you have to continually maneuver in uninterrupted rapids, imagine attending a college in which courses vary in length so when you sign up, you don’t know whether a course will last for 2 weeks or 30 weeks. Furthermore, the instructor can end a course any time he or she wants, with no prior warning. If that isn’t bad enough the length of the class session changes each time – sometimes it lasts 20 minutes, other times it runs for 3 hours and the time of the next class meeting is set by the instructor during the previous class. Oh yes, there is one more thing.

The exams are all unannounced, so you have to be ready for a test at any time. To succeed in this college, you would have to be incredibly flexible and be able to respond quickly to every changing condition. Students who are too structured or slow on their feet would not survive. A growing number of managers are coming to accept that their job is much like what a student would face in such a college. The stability and predictability of the claim waters do not exist. Disruptions in the status quo are not occasional and temporary, to be followed by a return to calm waters. Many of today’s managers never get out of the rapids. They face constant change, bordering on chaos. These managers are being forced to play a game they have never played before, which is governed by rules created as the game progresses. Is the white water rapids metaphor merely an overstatement?

No, take the case of General Motors. In the intensely competitive automotive manufacturing business, a company has to be prepared for any possibility. Cars are being surpassed by sport utility vehicles. Gasoline engines still cause fury among environmentalists who desire a more environment friendly source of power for vehicles. Government regulators demand ever increasing gasoline mileage. Customers want new and unique styles more frequently and competition in the industry is fierce. Although General Motors has typically on big competitors new entrants into the marketplace – Kia and Scion pick away at market share. For General Motors to succeed, it must change and continuously improve and revamp everything that it does.

The calm waters view of organizational change envisions the organization as a large ship crossing a calm sea. The ship’s captain and crew know exactly where they are going because they have made the trip many times before. Change comes in the form of an occasional storm, a brief distraction in an otherwise calm and predictable trip. In the calm waters metaphor, change is seen as an occasional disruption in the normal flow of events.

It is best illustrated by Kurt Lewin’s 3-step description of the change process.

According to Lewin, successful change can be planned and requires unfreezing the status quo, changing to a new state, and refreezing to make the change permanent. The status quo can be considered an equilibrium state. To move from this equilibrium, unfreezing is necessary. Unfreezing can be thought of as preparing for the needed change. It can be achieved by increasing the driving forces, which are forces pushing for change; by decreasing the restraining forces, which are forces that resist change and push behavior toward the status quo; or by combining the two approaches.

Once unfreezing is done, the change itself can be implemented. However, merely introducing change does not ensure that it will take hold. The new situation needs to be refrozen so that it can be sustained over time. Unless this last step is done, there is a strong chance that employees will revert back to the old ways of doing things. The objective of refreezing, then, is to stabilize the new situation by reinforcing the new behaviors.

Lewin’s 3-step process treats change as a move away from the organization’s current equilibrium state. It is a calm waters scenario where an occasional disruption means changing to deal with the disruption. Once the disruption has been dealt with, however, things can continue on under the new changed situation.

What do you think?

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