Freeze Framing and Turbulence

Turbulence offers a chance to put into place new, better habits, behaviours and structures if we know which ones to freeze into place.

Turbulence is a word suited to the times for many markets, human service situations, and communities. The massive jostling of our way of life and the effects on social life and the economy are still happening and

A widely cited change model attributed to social psychologist Kurt Lewin (but like many popular ideas from psychology, is actually more of an extrapolation of his original work) is the concept of freeze-unfreeze-refreeze. This model’s popularity is due largely to its simplicity which states that our usual behaviour is often ‘frozen’ (i.e., consistent, habitual, ingrained in regular practice) and change is initiated through a disruption to the norm and where a new behaviour is then ‘refrozen’ into place.

One of the challenges for those seeking to make productive changes in turbulent times is knowing what to ‘refreeze’ into place. The result, like the ice pictured above, might be rather choppy.

Future-Present

There is no sure-fire way to predict what will happen with any strategy, but without data it’s more likely that strategy will fail to provide the guidance you need.

Data on trends, patterns within an industry, culture, society, or even the world will help you to understand what array of choices you have ahead of you so that when the moment comes to make a decision in the present. This is the role of futures and foresight. These are domains of social science and design that look at data and use evidence-informed approaches to envision possible outcomes within a short, mid-term, and long-term timeline. Consider the ways of developing futures-oriented strategic plans by looking at what you have in place now, where that is likely to lead in the short-term and how that might lead you into the future. Amy Webb has developed a model that uses this approach and writes about that in the Harvard Business Review.

Webb’s model (illustrated below) focuses on moving away from the present to where the data, evidence and certainty shift over time.

Another approach is to look at the far outside boundary of the future you’re looking at (e.g., 10 years, 20 years) that is appropriate for your industry or context (e.g., computing technology is usually transformed in 2-5 years, the transportation sector window might be 10-15 years, while governments are often 25-50 years). This future-back approach is one that is used by strategists like Mark Johnson and Josh Suckewicz and discussed in their book Lead from the Future.

While both of these models can work in helping identify the kinds of patterns that we might wish to ‘refreeze’ or behaviours to better meet, they are contingent on there being a strong understanding of the present. This is the part of these models that is taken for granted and leaves many organizations vulnerable to building in a mis-directed strategy.

Put another way: if you don’t know what is frozen or unfrozen you won’t know what is best to re-freeze.

Presenting the Past and Future

A lack of understanding about the present situation can lead to enormous complications.

Take present success. A person or organization might be highly successful in their field due to structural barriers that keep others out that they may not be aware of or fully appreciate. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an outstanding means of highlight many structural factors that shape behaviour that were previous unseen or under-appreciated as we’ve seen by what has been constituted as ‘the front line.’

The reframing of what it means to run a small business, deliver goods and services to customers, and the role that structural advantages that are created through technology like Google, Amazon, and Facebook in shaping how things are found, procured, and delivered has shown that our former present is far from what our current present and future present is.

This is what reflective, mindful, systems-oriented practice does: it illuminates what we do and who we are by placing our work in context. Visualizing systems can be enormously helpful in supporting the sensemaking we require to truly understand our place in the present. This is what I call the “George Bailey Phenomenon” named after the character in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life who thinks he’s worthless, a cause of people’s problems, and unaccomplished. It’s only when he sees the interconnections between his actions in a systems context that he realizes that he’s made a difference that wasn’t apparent to him before.

A Christmas Carol is another holiday story and film that uses a similar approach of showing us what life might be like without us. Both works ground us in the present by allowing us to see into the future and the past.

Our past matters. Our present matters. And our future is what we can shape when we better understand them both.

This is not trivial — it’s about investing in learning about what you do, where you come from, and how it comes together in the present and then matching it with the foresight and futures-thinking to shape a strategy forward. By knowing what you’ve frozen you can better understand what is unfreezing and what you need to refreeze to shape things to come.

If you want to set your organization to better weather the storms and ice to come using this approach, reach out as I’d welcome a chance to help you.

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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