finding solutions

Organizational Change: Leadership Lessons from Rocky Balboa (Part 2)

Continued from Organizational Change: Leadership Lessons from Rocky Balboa (Part 1)


Cognitive Restructuring

The recognition for the need to change only makes the change process possible. The “change” itself is yet another process. Schein calls the process “cognitive restructuring,” which may also be called “reframing” of the new information or new reality. He indicates that this process may result from 1) a re-definition of the environment or task or function that requires change; 2) a broadening of the change target under consideration; or 3) a changing of the standards on which performance may be measured.

In Rocky’s case his prior success was as a brawler not a boxer. His future success would require a redefinition of his role, which would be the subject of change. Rocky’s change would also require him to fundamentally adjust his overall strategy. Historically, Rocky’s success was a result of his sheer will and physical ability to “go the distance” of twelve full rounds. To be successful in recapturing the title, a new training approach and strategy would strive for effectiveness in six rounds or less, not his normal twelve. Finally, Rocky would have to redefine what a successful performance meant for him. In his first championship fight he was satisfied to “go the distance” whether he won or lost. When he lost his championship to Clubber Lang, in only three rounds, the loss devastated his self-esteem. Now, as the challenger, although winning back the championship was the goal, giving it his best shot, with no excuses and no setups, was his new measure of optimal performance. Schein suggests that this process of cognitive restructuring is fundamental to effecting change that lasts.

Identification with a role model

Schein states that the processing of this new information, which makes change possible, is the result of one of two processes: 1) learning through identification with some available positive or negative role model, or 2) trial and error process of scanning the environment for new concepts. Many organizations requiring change use a role model through the application of best practices, such as Value-based Management, Total Quality Management or Six-Sigma for example, or engage consultants experienced in the required field of expertise. The use of a role model can help walk an organization through the change process. Rocky, fortunately, had such a role model in Apollo Creed. Apollo was a boxer, not a brawler. He utilized finesse as opposed to sheer power. He knew how to train Rocky to effect “change” in his technique, strategy, conditioning, and mindset to defeat the physically stronger opponent and regain the title.


An alternative to the use of the role model is environmental scanning in order to identify possible solutions to the organization’s problem. Schein suggests that possibly the best and most stable solutions for change may be those insights that are discovered or created by the organization’s members themselves. The use of role models may be more efficient, but internally generated change may provide more lasting results. Although Rocky had an appropriate role model in Apollo, Rocky’s training team reviewed films of Clubber Lang’s previous fights in search of any weaknesses or tendencies that would provide Rocky an opportunity for success. This scanning identified the fact that all of Lang’s victories were early knockouts resulting from his ferocious all-out physical attacks; he was never tested beyond three or four rounds. The necessary change would be to resist going toe-to-toe in a slugfest, as was Rocky’s typical approach, and instead defend Lang’s attack with finesse, letting the brawler expend his energy and strength.

Argryis’ Intervention Theory suggests a second requirement for change to be effective, that being free, informed choice. Rocky’s trainer, Apollo Creed, had intervened providing Rocky with valid and useful information needed to assess the probability of recapturing the title and the changes that Rocky would have to make. But, as Argyris’ theory points out, it is only with Rocky’s free, informed choice to do so can he initiate the required changes.


In Kurt Lewin’s model the final stage is “refreeze.” In this stage, the new reality has been accepted as a result of the unfreeze stage, change targets have been identified, and actions are initiated to make the changes and make them permanent. This stage cannot be successfully accomplished unless the organization has successfully and completely navigated the preceding two. Likewise, Argyris’ Intervention Theory suggests that for change to be successful and permanent the final requirement is total commitment to the new course of action. Once Rocky accepted his new reality and understood the need for and degree of change required, and felt psychologically safe in doing so, he was ready to freeze the required changes in place. He made the personal, total commitment to change.

To complete the “refreeze” stage Apollo took Rocky to the root of his own personal championship quest: the sweaty gym in east LA where fighters’ dreams were born. There Rocky’s trainers changed his training routine. Gone were the days of long endurance runs through the streets of Philly; replaced by laps in a pool and sprints in the sand. Gone were the power lifts and body-bag sessions; replaced with the speed-bag and sparring with welterweights. Rocky’s training and preparation for this new reality were completely different than that which he had ever employed before. When he entered the ring for his rematch with Clubber Lang to regain the heavyweight championship of the world, he was a completely different fighter. As the ringside commentator remarked, “he looks like a middleweight.” The 220 pound brawler, who previously relied on brute force and “going the distance” was now a 180 pound boxer relying on speed and finesse. The end result: a second round knockout and the regaining of his championship.

Organizational Change

Kurt Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze model and Chris Argyris’ Intervention Theory provide organizations with not only a sound theoretical understanding of the change process, but practical models for change implementation. The stages are sequential and each is invaluable in effecting long-lived change. Many organizations today are experiencing the boxing equivalent to a standing eight count: they’ve been pummeled by the reality of a rapidly changing environment, yet they’re still on their feet, bloodied but still in the game. These organizations, and others that may be fortunate enough to recognize the need for change before the pain gets too great, are well advised to consider the actions of Rocky and his leadership team and make the necessary changes to regain the championship and dish out some pain of their own. For as Apollo Creed adroitly stated, “There is no tomorrow.”