The Kotter Change Model

john kotter change model feature image

In 1994 John Paul Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor, penned an article called Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Then, in 1995 the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published the article. As a result, the Kotter Change Model was born.

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Since then:

  • The article has jumped to number 1 on HBR’s reprint list
  • John has expanded his insights his book Leading Change
  • He has extended his thoughts even further in a range of other books (see references below)

Yet, John remains convinced that leaders still make the mistakes that he described in his original article. And, he believes that ‘among the general population of leaders and managers, the basics are still very poorly understood’.

The Kotter Change Model in a Nutshell

According to John Kotter:

  • Management and leadership are two different things. Management is about dealing with the complexity of the here and now. In contrast, leadership is about adapting to and creating change.
  • Change is a process that takes a considerable amount of time. This process has several stages. Skipping stages to save time may lead to an illusion of change, but it is not sustained. In a similar vein, mistakes in any of the phases can doom your change initiative to failure.
  • There are 8 critical mistakes leaders tend to make, one for each phase of change. The Kotter Change Model involves avoiding these mistakes and replacing them with better decisions.

kotter change model 8 steps

stage 1Mistake 1: Allowing People to Remain Complacent with the Way Things Are

The first mistake outlined in the Kotter Model of change involves allowing people to remain complacent with the ways things are already.

The problem is that if they don’t genuinely see and feel there is a need to change, they are unlikely to invest the effort needed to achieve and sustain significant change.

You need to help people see that things can’t stay as they are, and according to Kotter, you do this by creating a sense of urgency that change is needed.

Generating a sense of urgency includes but goes beyond making a rational business case for change. You need to win people’s hearts and minds. They need to both see and feel the need for change.

Kotter recommends 4 specific tactics to create a sense of urgency:

  • Bringing the outside, inside. For example, you can use outside consultants to challenge the status quo.
  • Behaving with urgency every day. For example, you should be visibly energetic and decisive in your actions.
  • Harnessing crises. For example, you can use and even create a crisis to springboard people into seeing the need for change.
  • Dealing with NoNos. For example, moving them on or distracting them with special projects.

stage 2 Mistake 2: Trying to Lead Change Without Other Committed & Powerful People

According to the Kotter Change Model, the second mistake leaders make is trying to lead change alone.

Significant and sustained change is incredibly difficult to achieve. As a result, even those armed with a magnetic charisma cannot do it alone.

Nor can you achieve it through weak committees or task forces. Yes, you need to enlist the help of others, but your choice of whom to involve matters too. You need strong, powerful people to help you achieve lasting success. Kotter refers to this as forming a powerful coalition to guide the change.

Your coalition should include some senior leaders and managers with line authority, but it does not have to include them all. Why? Basically, you don’t include those who don’t buy-in – at least initially.

3-5 people can be enough to initiate a change, but in large organizations, this will need to grow to 20-50 people.

Your guiding coalition should include people with power outside of managerial authority. For example, you can enlist a prominent board member, a star performer and a union representative. Yet, it is not their titles that matter, but rather the sway they hold over others.

step 3 Mistake 3: Nurturing Misaligned Projects & Initiatives

Successful change involves empowering people. However, this can often lead to a range of uncoordinated projects. Such misalignment can waste precious resources. Worst of all, it can pull the organization in different directions.

The solution, according to the Kotter Change Model, is to create a clear and compelling vision. Such vision provides both motivation and direction. This direction allows people to work on different things. Yet they do so in a way that complements the efforts of others.

A vision provides a picture of the future along with a broad idea of how to get there. It is often reinforced, with a brief reminder of why you need to move there in the first place.

If you are the leader of the change, the initial development of this vision falls squarely in your lap. However, you need to involve your guiding coalition in shaping and adding clarity to your initial ideas. In large organizations, this can take up to 12 months.

You can read more about John’s views on what makes a good vision here.

In John’s book, Leading Change, he adds the need for strategies in this step. Vision tells people where they are headed, while strategies offer a broad sense of how to get there.  By including broad strategies, you also help people to see that your vision is feasible.

kotter change model step 4Mistake 4: Allowing Staff to Believe That Change Isn’t Possible or Desirable

People won’t change unless they believe that change is both desirable and possible. A compelling vision is essential for this to happen. Yet, a well-crafted vision is not enough on its own.

According to the Kotter Change Model, people won’t believe the vision is possible or desirable unless you overcommunicate the vision. So, the answer to mistake 4, is to communicate, communicate and communicate.

A scattering of speeches and presentations is not enough. You need to embed communicating the vision into your day-to-day activities.

When talking about problems, outline how proposed solutions fit or don’t fit with the vision. When reprimanding a staff member, talk about how their behaviour is not consistent with the vision. And when doing a Q&A session, tie your answers back to the vision.

You also need to use all modes of communication available to you. Use meetings, newsletters, training sessions, email, video and more. And you need to speak to people’s hearts, not just their minds.

Kotter also recommends that you:

  • Keep your communication simple
  • Make use of metaphors, analogies and examples
  • Allow for two-way communication

Finally, and most importantly, you need to communicate through your actions, not just your words. You need to model what you expect of others. And, you need your guiding coalition to do the same.

step 5 Mistake 5: Failing to Remove or Decrease Blockers of Change

There are always forces at play that serve to block or hinder people’s attempts to change. This is true even if they have bought into the change and they are trying to make it happen. Some of these blockers are soft people issues, while others are hard structural forces.

The idea that change is personal is one of the essential change management principles. So, it is not surprising that many of these forces exist inside of people. Knowledge, skill levels, beliefs and habits can all hinder people’s efforts to change. Such is the case with other forms of personal change including New Year’s resolutions and dieting.

Other barriers can take the form of hard organizational factors. These include existing structures, systems and ways of working. By their very nature, these factors nurture stability, not change. However, you can adjust them to work in your favour.

You and your guiding coalition need to take action that addresses these barriers. Yet, you can’t do it all at once. Start with foreseeable blockers that could have a large and detrimental impact on the success of your change initiative. Then address others as they emerge and as time allows.

step 6 kotter change modelMistake 6: Allowing Momentum to Be Lost

Significant change takes time. So, it is understandable that even your most committed staff can lose their initial motivation. Once again, a personal analogy captures this point quite nicely. Think about people’s commitment to go walking each day, to go to the gym, or do some other form of daily exercise. Yes, some people do manage it. But, many don’t, especially over an extended timeframe.

The answer, according to Kotter’s Change Model, is to plan for and celebrate short-term wins.

In addition to helping sustain momentum, short-term wins: 

  • Provide evidence that people’s sacrifices and hard work are worth it
  • Reward people who embraced the change with a pat on the back
  • Reduce resistance from remaining cynics
  • Reassure board members and shareholders

Merely hoping for short-term wins is not enough. You (and your guiding coalition) need to identify real opportunities to make this happen. Then, you need to plan to make it so (specific goals, action steps, milestones, and alike). Sprinkle these planned achievements over a 1-3-year period.

You also need to closely monitor activity in these areas so that you can adjust as necessary.

Then, once your short-term wins come to fruition, make sure that you:

  • Take the time to acknowledge them
  • Recognise the people behind them
  • Celebrate the success publicly


step 7Mistake 7: Declaring Victory Too Soon

In mistake 6, Kotter acknowledged that change takes time and that you need to plan short-term wins to sustain momentum.

Mistake 7, in the Kotter Change Model, happens because leaders fail to appreciate just how long significant change takes. Kotter estimates that in large, complex organizations transformational change can take 10+ years.

Of course, the number is not definitive, as it is dependent on the scope and scale of the change, as well as the size and nature of your organization. However, Kotter’s estimate helps to open people’s eyes to how long change can take.

Yet, even leader’s whose eyes are open can unintentionally declare victory too soon. They tend to do this in two ways. First, they acknowledge and celebrate short-term wins (a good thing). Second, they do it in a way that implicitly says the hard work is over and its time to relax – and there lies the problem.

Kotter’s answer involves you in sending a clear message, ‘yes we are progressing well, but we still have more to do.’ Rather than allowing staff to rest on their laurels, you need to use the achievement of early milestones as proof that change is possible, and to push for further change.

You continue to communicate a strong vision, while also:

  • Empowering those below to initiate and manage aligned change projects
  • Identify and reduce unnecessary interdependencies

step 9 in the kotter change modelMistake 8: Not Sustaining Change

Accomplishing change is a hard and lengthy process. But, sustaining change is even more challenging.

Mistake 8 in the Kotter Change Model involves failing to plan for sustained change. To put it more bluntly, not planning for what will happen when you leave.

According to Kotter, you do this through anchoring your change in the corporate culture. Put another way; you need to make new behaviors the norm for the way we do things around here.

How do you do this? First, it is not easy. Second, unlike other change theorists, Kotter believes it is the last part of change – not the first.

Moreover, in his initial article on leading change, John talks about two specific strategies.

The first of these involved helping people make explicit links between improved performance and new ways of working. Talk about it a lot and never assume people will make these links themselves.

The second involves succession planning. You need to put a plan in place for hiring your replacement. This plan must involve hiring someone who values what you have created. And it must avoid hiring someone whose values mirror the old culture in your organization.

He outlines more strategies in his book, Leading Change. However, changing organizational culture is a complex topic in and of itself. You can read more about organizational culture and how to change it here.

Evaluation of the Kotter Change Model


The Kotter Change Model is well-known and popular. John’s book, Leading Change is a bestseller.


It is also broadly compatible with other process models of change.

For example, Kurt Lewin’s 3 stages of change, include:

  • Helping people see the need to change (incorporated in Step 1 of the Kotter Model)
  • Removing or reducing blockages to change (see Step 5 of the Kotter Model)
  • Anchoring changes as the new normal (part of Step 8 of the Kotter Model)

Gerard Egan (1996) added visioning and strategy to the mix (see Step 3 of the Kotter Model).


However, the Kotter Change Model is also unique.

First, it focuses on transformational, strategic change led by the CEOs of large, complex organizations. For example, IBM, Ford and Walmart. So, not all the advice is relevant to leaders of:

  • Smaller organizations or smaller units within a larger organization
  • More minor changes within an organization
  • Bottom-up, emergent changes within an organization

Second, it adds some unique steps, and some unique takes on other steps. For example:

  • Step 1 in the Kotter Change model involves helping people see the need for change (a similarity to other models). Yet, it focuses on using urgency to drive people into change (unique to Kotter’s model).
  • Step 2 (guiding coalition), Step 6 (short-term wins) and Step 7 (not declaring victory too soon) are all unique to Kotter’s model.
  • Step 8 (anchoring change) is like Kurt Lewin’s refreezing stage but is unique in its use of establishing a new culture as the means of doing this.

Evidence Supporting Aspects of the Kotter Change Model

John provides many case studies to support his advice. But he fails to offer any empirical research to back his claims.

Since John published his article in 1995, researchers have conducted just one review of the model in its entirety. And they didn’t do this until 2012.

Still, there is research that supports some aspects of the model. For example, research supports the idea that:

  • People are more likely to embrace change when they see a need for change1. And, more specifically it supports2 the use of outsiders (e.g. consultants) to reinforce this message.
  • People expect leaders to have a vision3. Vision is an integral part of transformational leadership. And, transformational leadership has a positive impact on follower motivation and performance4.
  • Effectively communicating your vision is essential for it to have any impact5. Having senior leaders model the changes they want to see in others is a potent form of communication6.
  • Barriers to change do exist. These include soft factors7, such as skill levels and beliefs. They also include hard elements8 such as the centralization of decision making.
  • Making visible progress is motivating, and it helps build a belief that further change is possible9. Moreover, it helps doubters believe that change is feasible and that they too can succeed in this new system.
  • Leaders of change need to balance a focus on both short-term and long-term results10.

Evidence Challenging Aspects of the Kotter Change Model

There is also a lack of evidence supporting some aspects of the Kotter Change Model. This doesn’t mean that such elements are wrong or that they won’t work. Rather, it means that they haven’t been proven to work.

  • Research supports the idea that followers must see a need for change. Yet, there is no research supporting John’s notion of behaving with urgency every day.
  • Logic suggests that having powerful others helps to guide the change. But there is no research supporting John’s idea of a guiding coalition.
  • Transformational leadership is linked to follower motivation. Yet, prominent academics note11 that there is no research showing that transformational leadership leads to large-scale, organizational
  • Mature organizational cultures are difficult if not impossible to change12. Yet, simple changes to procedures13 (e.g. selection, performance appraisal, project reviews) can help sustain new initiatives. So too can feedback. Behavior that you reinforce is likely to be repeated14.


Kotter, J. P. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review, 73(2), 59-67.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Research Footnote References

Download research references supporting and challenging aspects of the Kotter Change Model.


Communication Strategy: 4 Ways + 1 More

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Effective leaders always need excellent communication skills. Such skills are even more critical when you are communicating about change. You must have a clear communication strategy when you embark on any form of change initiative.

communication strategy header image

Phillip Clampitt and his colleagues identified 4 common communication strategies that you can use + 1 more. You should use the +1 more strategy, but to do so effectively you first need to understand the 4 alternatives.

Communication Strategy 1: Spray & Pray

Some leaders believe that the more information you give, the more effective your communication will be. For this reason, they bombard their staff with all kinds of information. They leave it up to their staff to discern what is and isn’t worth attending to.

The advantage of the spray and pray approach as your communication strategy is that it builds trust. Why? Because it shows, you have nothing to hide.

Yet, the disadvantage of this approach is that it can leave many staff feeling overwhelmed due to information overload.

Communication Strategy 2 – Withhold Until Necessary

Other leaders go to the other extreme. They share information on a need-to-know basis. And, they withhold information from staff until it is necessary to share it.

Why do they do this? Leaders who use this approach tend to do so for one of two reasons.

  • First, some leaders believe that information is power and that sharing information reduces their power.
  • Second, some leaders do not want to overload their staff with information, much of which is not directly relevant to them.

The genuine advantage of using the withhold until necessary approach is that it protects your staff from information overload.

The disadvantage of this approach is that it breeds rumours and distrust.

Communication Strategy 3 – Tell & Sell

Leaders who adopt the tell and sell approach as their communication strategy provide more focus than those who use the spray and pray approach. Yet, they are more open than leaders who use the withhold until necessary approach.

There are 2 core steps in the tell and sell approach. These are:

  • Telling your staff about the key reasons why change is necessary
  • Selling your proposed solution to your staff

The advantages of the tell and sell approach are that it prevents information overload, while also avoiding the distrust that can come from the withholding of information.

Yet, there are also two disadvantages to using the tell and sell approach as your communication strategy. First, some staff like to be kept in the loop, with full access to information about what is going on. Second, it is one-way communication and so may fail to address concerns that staff may have.

Communication Strategy 4 – Identify & Reply

Leaders who use the identify and reply approach to communication listen before they speak. Put another way, they listen to the concerns of their staff before responding to issues that their staff raise.

There are two advantages to this approach. First, it allows you to correct false rumours and misunderstandings. Second, it helps you identify and address real obstacles to the success of your change initiative.

There are also two disadvantages to the identify and reply approach. First, it does not allow you to get on the front foot by getting your key messages out. Second, without access to information from you, your staff may not know enough to ask the right questions.


All 4 approaches to communication have their advantages and disadvantages.

So, the best communication strategy involves integrating aspects of all 4 approaches. But, as the spray and pray and the withhold until necessary are the least effective approaches, you make more use of approaches 3 & 4.

Adopting such an integrated communication strategy is the basis of the +1 approach that you can read about below.

Communication Strategy 5: The +1 Approach

The +1 approach involves creatively integrating the best of all 4 of the above methods for communication listed above.

communication strategy plus 1 approach

Underscore & Explore

Phillip Clampitt and his colleagues describe a fifth communication strategy that they call underscore and explore. It is a combination of the two most effective approaches – tell and sell, and identify and reply. 

You start by getting your key messages across. This involves telling people about the real reasons why change is needed and selling them your broad vision of a better future.

You then listen to their concerns. This enables you to promptly address any misunderstandings. And, it allows you to identify and address genuine obstacles to the success of your idea for change.

You may even find the need to refine your vision to take account of your staff’s ideas of a better future.

Offering Access

Phillip and his colleagues don’t integrate the spray and pray, or the withhold until necessary approaches into their fifth alternative – the underscore and explore approach. Why? Because they are the least effective forms of communication.

Yet, they both have advantages. It is possible to give staff access to a variety of information, without pushing it on them and overloading those who don’t want it. It is called the offering access approach.

In this case, technology is your friend. It allows you to give your staff access to more detailed information as it is available. This may include access to both internal and external sources of information. For example, you could post an internal report outlining the case for change on your staff intranet. And, you could post links to relevant outside information.

By adding the offering access approach to your communication strategy, you make sure that staff can access further, relevant information without pushing them to do so. And, as more information becomes available, you give them access to this as well.


Clampitt, P. G., DeKoch, R. J., & Cashman, T. (2000). A Strategy for Communicating About Uncertainty. Academy of Management Executive, 14(4), 41-57.

3 Stages of Change: Kurt Lewin’s Change Model

lewiin's 3 stages of change feature image

Successfully leading change starts with an understanding that change is a process, not an event. This is one of the key change management principles. You must lead your staff through the stages of change. Thankfully, the process of change is not difficult to understand.

lewiin's 3 stages of change feature image

Kurt Lewin developed a model that has just 3 stages of change – unfreezing, moving and refreezing. Lewin’s change model is great because it is easy to understand, it is the basis of many other models, and it is supported by research.

Kurt Lewin’s Change Model In a Nutshell

Kurt Lewin’s change model has 3 steps.

stages of change diagram

The first stage involves helping people to see why a change is needed. The second stage involves taking action, and the third stage involves refreezing changed ways of working as the new norm.

Unfreezing: The 1st of 3 Stages of Change

lewin's stages of change - stage 1 - unfreezingThe first stage of Lewin’s change model is unfreezing. Before real change can happen, people need to accept that change is a good idea. Put another way; they need to be motivated to change.  The first stage of change is all about making this happen.

You start this step by challenging and destabilizing the status quo. Or, in other words, you highlight how the existing ways of doing things are not working as well as they could be.

Creating and discussing data is one way to do this. The exact nature of the data that you need to use will vary according to your situation. However, it would typically include both performance data and opinions.

After exploring relevant data, people get a sense of what a better future may look like. You need to capture this as the basis for a compelling vision that you can unite your staff behind. You can also form some broad goals for change.

At this stage of the change process, you are not trying to nail down detailed solutions for how to make things better. Instead, you need to help people see that some form of change is a good idea, and to have a broad picture of a better future.

Moving: The 2st of 3 Stages of Change

lewin's change model - stage 2 = movingThe second stage of Lewin’s change model is moving. Once people accept that change is necessary and there is agreement about what this may look like, it is time to start planning and making change happen.

First, you conduct a force-field analysis. This enables you to identify forces that can drive your change initiative as well as forces that may restrain your efforts. Furthermore, it involves coming up with strategies that:

  • Strengthen driving forces
  • Weaken restraining forces

You then implement the strategies that you have devised. The right strategies for you will depend upon your situations and the force field analysis you undertook.

However, common strategies for strengthening driving forces include:

  • Communicating a compelling vision that describes a desirable future state
  • Setting more specific goals to be achieved
  • Scheduling milestones and regular reviews

Common strategies for weakening restraining forces include:

  • Involving staff in decisions about change
  • Over-communicating about the change
  • Providing training and development
  • Giving people the freedom to experiment, evaluate and refine

Read more about How to Use Lewin’s Force Field Analysis to Achieve Change.

Refreezing: The 2nd of 3 Stages of Change

lewin's change model - stage 3 - refreezingThe third stage in Lewin’s change model is refreezing. Once people have adjusted to new ways of working and ironed out any issues that emerged, it is time for you to cement changes as the new norm.

If you don’t pay attention to refreezing, people soon revert to old ways of working.

Refreezing involves tightening control that you loosened in the moving stage and entrenching a new culture.

Some of the common ways leaders refreeze their organization are through:

  • Induction processes that introduce new staff to the new way things are done
  • Token reward systems that recognise and reinforce desired behavior
  • Monitoring behaviour and performance at both group and individual levels
  • Initiating corrective action based on your monitoring
  • Alignment of other supporting systems and structures

To Sum Up

Change is a process. Lewin’s change model describes 3 stages of the change process. It is simple, yet potent, and you can apply it to a wide range of contexts. provide a simple, yet potent description of that process. It forms the basis of many other descriptions of the change process, and it is a model supported by research.


Elrod, P. D., & Tippett, D. D. (2002). The Death Valley of Change. Journal of Organizational Change, 15, 273-291.

Ford, M. W., & Greer, B. M. (2006). Profiling Change: An Empirical Study of Change Process Patterns. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 42(4), 420-446.

Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concepts, Method and Reality in Social Sciences, Social Equilibria and Social Change. Human Relations, 1, 5-42.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field Theory in Social Sciences. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Zand, D. E., & Sorenson, R. E. (1975). Theory of Change and the Effective Use of Management Science. Administrative Science Quarterly, 20, 532-545.

How to Use Lewin’s Force Field Analysis to Achieve Change

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Kurt Lewin uses an analogy of a force field to describe how organizations maintain stability and how they change. You should use Lewin’s force field analysis to identify ways to achieve and sustain change in your organization. lewin's force field analysis feature image

Lewin’s Force Field Analogy

Lewin uses an analogy of a force field to describe why organizations are sometimes stable, and why they sometimes change. He identified that there are always two sets of forces at work. One set drives change while the other restrains change. When the forces are equal, then organizations maintain stability.
kurt lewin's force field analysis in times of stability
However, when the driving forces are stronger than the restraining forces, change occurs. force field analysis in times of change There are two ways to achieve change. You can:
  • Increase the forces driving change
  • Decrease the forces restraining change
However, according to Lewin, some driving forces, such as pressure to change, increase tension and resistance. Therefore, you need to increase driving forces carefully, and you should focus on lowering restraining forces.

Using Lewin’s Force Field Analysis

Lewin’s force field analysis involves identifying the:
  • Driving forces behind your idea for change
  • Restraining forces that may block the success of your idea
The exact nature of these forces will depend on your situation. However, you should focus on forces that shape people’s behavior. These include:
  • People’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, beliefs, values, feelings, workloads and their competing interests
  • Structural issues, such as role clarity, the reporting relationships, and the degree of autonomy that people have
  • Established systems for how different things get done in your organization
Conducting Lewin’s force field analysis involves:
  • Brainstorming a list of driving and restraining forces that could be in play
  • Ranking the strength of each force (e.g. 1 being weak and 5 being strong)
  • Highlighting those forces that have a high impact (e.g. ranking 4-5)
  • Brainstorm ideas for increasing the strength of potentially strong driving forces
  • Brainstorm ideas for eliminating or decreasing strong restraining forces
  • Eliminating any ideas that are impractical in your situation
  • Grouping similar ideas together
  • Deciding which ideas represent the best of the rest

After the Force Field Analysis

After doing the above, you need to decide whether your idea for change is worth the time, money and effort that will be required. Don’t be afraid to make the call that your idea for change is not feasible. However, if you do decide to press on, you need to involve others in conducting the above steps. You could start with your leadership team, then 1 or 2 representative staff, and then your staff. Involving others in the process is itself a way to reduce individual resistance to the change, plus people will add valuable input from their on the ground perspective.

Note – the Force Field Analysis Is Part of a Process

It is also important to note that you should use Lewin’s force field analysis as part of a broader process for change. Treating change as a process is one of the key principles of change management. According to Lewin, such a process starts with a dissatisfaction of the existing and a broad agreement about a more desirable future. You should do this before involving staff in a force field analysis. See the 3 Stages of Change: Kurt Lewin’s Change Model for further details.

Summing Up Lewin’s Force Field Analysis

Change is a process. You conduct a force field analysis as part of that process. The analysis involves identifying forces that are driving or that could drive change, as well as forces that may restrain change. You then come with strategies that strengthen the forces driving change. At the same time, you come up with strategies that eliminate or reduce the strength of forces that restrain change.

When you are thinking about initiating change, it is worth doing your own force field analysis. If you then decide that your idea for change is feasible, you should involve others in doing a force field analysis.


Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concepts, Method and Reality in Social Sciences, Social Equilibria and Social Change. Human Relations, 1, 5-42.