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August 7, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 7


The insights of Kurt Lewin, one of the founding fathers of social psychology, have relevance for a project-based environment like NASA.

Kurt Lewin may not be a household name today, but it is no exaggeration to say that his work had a profound influence on a generation of social scientists. I became familiar with Lewin during my graduate work at Columbia University, where I studied with Morton Deutsch, a student of Lewin’s who went on to do groundbreaking work of his own. Lewin, a German Jew who immigrated to the United States just as Hitler came to power, attracted widespread notice in the 1940s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he served as the director of the Center for Group Dynamics. Today we take the concept of group dynamics for granted; at the time, Lewin was breaking new ground.

Two of Lewin’s best-known conceptual contributions to social psychology are force field analysis and action research. Force field analysis is a tool for understanding what it takes to achieve change in any given social situation, ranging from an organization to an international conflict. Lewin’s insights are simple but profound. With any change issue, regardless of the context, there are driving forces that seek change and restraining forces that resist it. The key to success, he says, is to focus on removing the forces of resistance rather than trying to amass forces in favor of change. This, of course, requires a willingness to listen and understand other perspectives through intensive, purposeful dialogue.
Action research is an iterative approach to problem solving that looks today like an ancestor of the spiral development methodology that emerged in the software industry decades later. Lewin coined the term “action research” in the mid-1940s, describing it as “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the action.” Action research also has served as the starting point for other more recent concepts such as the reflective practitioner model, which is central to the Academy’s philosophy of knowledge sharing.

In a project setting, Lewin’s ideas are as timely as ever. Force field analysis remains a useful model for assessing a project’s context. Which forces are driving change? Which are resisting it? Action research mirrors good project leadership: plan, act, review, and repeat. Though we may not recognize it, in many respects today we are all Lewinians.

Read more about Kurt Lewin.

Cited by Newman, Lynn, and Fitzgerald in “Appreciative inquiry with an executive team: Moving along the action research continuum,” Organizational Development Journal, Fall 2001. Accessed 21 July 2008 at

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