Our Iceberg is Melting (2005) explores how to effectively lead others through change. Using a fable about a colony of penguins, it identifies a framework leaders can use not only to survive change but to ultimately thrive.
Introduction: Learn how to successfully lead through change.
Face facts quickly.
Make a decisive plan.
Execute your plan.
Safeguard your future.
About the author
Video and Podcast
Management, Leadership, Business Culture, Self Help, Psychology, Personal Development, Education, Academic, School, Organizational Change
Introduction: Learn how to successfully lead through change.
Change. Terrifying as it is, it’s an inevitable part of life…and business. If you don’t know how to handle it well, you’ll never prosper. And worse, you’ll put everything you’ve built – and everyone who’s part of that – at risk.
Many business leaders who successfully navigate change do it intuitively, which is great for them but not much help for anyone wanting clear instructions on how to survive upheaval. To shed some light on managing change, author John Kotter distilled the course leaders need to take into an eight-step framework.
In these summaries, we’re going to explore this framework through four broader phases of change leadership. And we’re going to do it using a fable that Kotter wrote to illustrate the journey, a fable about a colony of penguins living in Antarctica.
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- why taking time-out for team-building exercises is useful, even when faced with a crisis;
- how social pressure can be used as a tool to overcome obstacles; and
- what to do to keep your team motivated during change.
Face facts quickly.
No one enjoys hearing that they’re teetering on the edge of disaster. The option between radically overhauling your organization or pressing on with business as usual seems like a no-brainer. But sometimes, leaders find themselves staring catastrophe in the face: a major breakdown of infrastructure; a product line made redundant by the sudden appearance of a new competitor; the realization that the knowledge your company is running on is outdated and irrelevant.
If you were an emperor penguin living in Antarctica, your version of this scenario would be a little different. It might be something like this:
Louis the penguin lived on an iceberg which had been his home, and the home of his ancestors, for countless generations. As far as icebergs go, it was exemplary. It had beautiful, towering walls of packed snow that sheltered the colony from winter storms, and seas filled with delicious fish.
Louis was Head Penguin of the colony. Along with nine other leaders, he managed the wellbeing of his 300-strong flock – everything from squabbles between neighbours to leopard seal threats. He was dedicated to his work, which is why it took him a while to pay proper attention to his fellow leader Alice. Alice kept insisting that Louis invite a random young penguin to give a presentation at the next Council meeting – some doom and gloom story. But Alice was one of those ‘dog with a bone types’ – not that Louis knew much about dogs. So, he relented and invited this young Fred to the meeting.
Despite his reservations – there was already so much to get through during those meetings – Louis approached Fred’s presentation the way he approached everything: calmly, openly and willing to listen.
Fred’s presentation shocked him. This observant young bird had discovered a huge hollow inside their iceberg, where the snow had melted away. The sea had filled the hollow, which was a major problem. Winter was two months away; that water would freeze for sure and when it did, the expanding ice inside the iceberg would shatter it to pieces.
Fred’s presentation was compelling – he’d even made a model of the iceberg, complete with a lift-off lid to show the hollow inside. Some of the other leaders resisted, saying Fred couldn’t prove his theory and claiming he was just fear-mongering. But Alice reminded Louis that the colony would hold him – and all the leaders – accountable if Fred was right. If they did nothing and penguins died when the iceberg broke apart, blood would be on their flippers.
Louis saw the sense in this. Even though not all the leaders agreed with him, he decided to call a community meeting, to tell the colony that they had two months to find a solution. Louis knew that to survive this catastrophe, they were going to need as much buy-in and brain-power as possible.
When he told the colony about their melting iceberg, he didn’t sugar-coat the truth. He put Fred’s iceberg model in a community space where everyone could examine it, and he made a point of listening to the penguins who came to take a look. They shared their fears and worries with him but also their ideas. And Louis knew that among those ideas, there would be a solution.
When you’re facing your own version of an iceberg, you can’t afford to stick your head in the sand. You need to accept reality quickly, and help your team accept it too. Instilling a sense of urgency will prevent your team from becoming complacent. Having to accept that change is coming is scary, so be present, be available and invite people to engage.
Make a decisive plan.
Now, if you’re a successful leader, you won’t need me to tell you that having a good team is essential. Louis knew this, so he invited four other penguins with diverse skillsets, strengths and personality types to form a team with him, to guide the colony through this disaster. But Louis knew that there was more to building a successful team than merely hand-picking individuals. He needed them to become a cohesive unit. So, despite the urgency they were all feeling, Louis took his team squid-hunting.
Squid – while delicious – are clever. If a penguin tried to hunt them alone, they ended up with a face full of squid-ink and an empty belly. But together, the team could catch all the squid they needed. As the penguins enjoyed their lunch, Louis asked them to share their hopes and dreams, their vision for the future. Taking some time out to form connections with each other galvanized the team and drew them close. With a sense of solidarity established, Louis knew it was time to start hunting solutions instead of squid.
Innovation doesn’t happen if you’re feeling stale, so Louis took his team on a hike into new territory. During the hike, they met a seagull. Seagulls weren’t a common sight in Antarctica. They really aren’t built for the cold. So, the penguins had lots of questions. Why are you here? Where are you going? Where do you live? The seagull told them he was a scout, looking for a new home for his flock. He explained that seagulls were nomads, without one fixed, long-term home.
This gave the team an idea. Perhaps the colony could be nomadic too. After all, if they found another nearby iceberg with a tall snow wall for protection and a sea full of fish, there was no reason why they couldn’t relocate. Of course, there were lots of details to sort out but they were confident they could find answers. The most important next step was to get the rest of the colony on board.
Among the team was a well-liked, charming penguin called Buddy. Louis felt he’d be the best team member to announce their relocation strategy. So, once again, he called a community meeting and asked Buddy to join him at the lectern – which was probably some kind of rock.
Buddy wasn’t particularly intellectual but he was a great story-teller. He told the colony about the team’s encounter with the seagull and what they’d learned about a nomadic lifestyle. When he was finished, there were lots of questions, which Louis fielded, constantly affirming that life could happily continue if they moved to another iceberg.
By the time he was done, about a third of the colony was on board. Another third was still absorbing the information. After all, the penguins had never lived anywhere else. Moving sounded as foreign as the tropics. The rest of the colony was sceptical, confused or hostile – some of them quite vocally.
Once the penguins had disbanded, Alice knew it was crucial to consistently communicate the team’s message: that moving was the best and most logical solution. She made posters out of ice-sheets and put them everywhere – even below the surface of the ocean where penguins would see them while they were hunting. And to make sure everyone could have their questions answered, she formed talking circles. That way, the community felt heard and the team could reassure them.
When you’re facing significant change, it’s important to stay focused on what counts: survival. The penguins didn’t waste time on trying to discover why their iceberg was melting. Instead, they threw their energy into finding a solution and communicating it to their peers. If you’re going to lead through change, you’ll need to do the same: appoint a diverse team, make that team cohesive, devise a strategy to mitigate disaster, then consistently communicate and affirm that vision.
Execute your plan.
With winter getting closer by the day, Louis knew action was crucial. Since observant young Fred had the deepest understanding of what made an iceberg safe, Louis appointed him to lead a group of scouts on a reconnaissance mission. Surprisingly, there were more than enough brave volunteers to form the group. But this raised one huge question.
How would these scouts have time to conduct their mission and hunt enough fish to sustain themselves through winter?
You see, the penguins had a very old tradition. Parent penguins would share their food with their chicks but they would never, ever, share with another adult. It was simply unconscionable.
In good faith that, once again, a solution would be found, the scouts set off on their mission. Meanwhile, back on the iceberg, doubt started spreading through the colony. NoNo – a very senior member of the leadership Council who’d been trying to discredit Fred from the start – was telling everyone that a whale would gobble them up if they left their home. Chicks started having nightmares; their parents were too tired to keep volunteering their help; and there was still the unsolvable problem of how to feed the scouts when they returned. With so many obstacles, relocating seemed like a pipe dream.
But among all the disgruntled penguins was a bright little kindergartener called Sally Ann. She asked Alice how she could help and Alice told her the best thing to do was to get her parents on board. So, Sally Ann came up with a plan. She and her fellow chicks would host a ‘Tribute to Our Heroes Day’, to welcome back the scouts. There’d be live entertainment and a raffle, and every adult would need to pay two fish for admission.
Of course, the parents were quite shocked by this but the chicks made it clear that they’d be completely embarrassed if their parents didn’t come. Social pressure did its work, the turn-out was huge and enough fish were collected to feed the scouts.
Everyone was having a great time but there was an undercurrent of anxiety too. Would the scouts return on time? Would they return at all?
But then, as dusk fell, something magical happened. Every scout returned. They were tired, hungry, and a few had minor injuries, but they were also buzzing. As they shared stories about their adventures, their excitement spread. All the adults were glad they’d spared a few fish for these heroic scouts.
Celebrating short-term wins is important as you lead your organization through change. It remotivates your peers and helps them recommit to your vision. And equally important is empowering your community. When people believe they can help – every the youngest or least experienced – they step up and find ways to contribute. Don’t ever underestimate someone’s creativity or problem-solving capacity; inspire them to be part of the solution.
Fred’s scouting mission was a huge success – not only in motivating the colony but also in finding a new home. He identified the best candidate iceberg, then another group of scouts set out with the colony’s resident logician to examine it more closely. There were even more scout volunteers to choose from this time. And not a single penguin batted an eyelash over having to fish for them. Just like that, a long-held tradition faded away to support the colony’s immediate needs.
As you execute your strategy, activities that once felt crucial will start to become redundant. Be on the look-out for any obstacles that are arising from irrelevant habits or behaviors. For instance, if you’re moving from an on-site office environment to a work-from-home model, don’t waste time on weekly meetings about building maintenance. Keep your obstacle radar sharp and do everything you can to clear the way for your team, so you can keep the momentum for change going.
Safeguard your future.
Once the candidate iceberg received the flippers-up from the second scout party, it was time for the colony to move. The journey wasn’t easy. Penguins were lost and found. The old and the young were pushed to their limits. But on the whole, it was successful. The penguins wintered safely on their new iceberg and everyone was full of praise for Louis and his change-team.
In an ideal world, the penguins would have preferred to stay on their original iceberg and continue life as usual. But the experience of relocating had taught them an important lesson: complacency is dangerous.
So, once spring had arrived, another scout party set out to explore a little further. They found an even better iceberg, and the colony moved once more. It was still tough but it was nowhere near as overwhelming as that first move. The penguins were more resilient and less afraid of change.
But something else important had happened too. Some penguins had developed a taste for the excitement of change. They wanted to look for new ways to improve life in the colony, so that everyone could thrive. To support this, Louis’ change-team investigated ways to make space for this desire, like adding ‘scouting’ to the school curriculum. Scouts had fast become the celebrities of the colony, and many a young chick aspired to be one. Now, they had the chance to develop all the skills they’d need.
So, perhaps the most significant transformation was that the colony came to value the need for stability and the need for change, both in the face of a crisis and to help everyone reach their potential. It was truly remarkable how many penguins stopped fearing change and embraced it instead.
Now that we’re reached the end of our penguin fable, let’s take a moment to reflect on that transformation. In the hands – or flippers – of a calm, considered and decisive leader like Louis, change can increase the integrity of your team members and your entire organization.
By supporting those who enjoy seeking out new ways to improve your business activities, you can avoid the kind of complacency that often causes a crisis in the first place. Remember: that hollow in the iceberg didn’t form overnight. If the colony had more Freds in it who were tuned into the environment, they would’ve had more time to relocate. And by empowering your team to meet and tackle change confidently, you’ll remove one of the biggest obstacles of all: fear. With those characteristics in play, and with you at the helm, your organization has everything it needs to not just survive but succeed.
You’ve just read the summary of Iceberg is Melting, by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber. The most important thing to remember/take away from all this is:
If you’re a business leader, you’ll undoubtedly have to guide your organization through change, whether it’s due to shifts in the marketplace, a global crisis or advances in technology. When you’re faced with this need for change, think back to Louis on his doomed iceberg. Face your reality so you’re not wasting time; appoint a team equipped with diverse skills and strengths; communicate your vision to create buy-in; then execute your strategy by encouraging innovation and removing barriers. The first major change will be the hardest but it’ll lead you to a place where you can thrive.
And here’s some more actionable advice: Identify your change team.
Having the right team leading change plays a huge role in outcomes, so appoint team members thoughtfully. You’ll need someone observant and insightful, like Fred; someone persistent and energetic, like Alice; and someone who knows how to communicate and connect, like Buddy. You’ll also need a cool-headed expert like the logician who assessed the new iceberg. Remember, every leader is different. If you don’t identify with Louis, don’t panic. Find a colleague who does and invite them to join your team.
About the author
John Kotter, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, is often called the world’s foremost authority on leadership and change. His many books, including Leading Change and That’s Not How We Do It Here!, have been translated into more than 200 foreign language editions and have been bestsellers around the world. He is a founder of Kotter International, a consulting firm that specializes in helping leaders transform their organizations.
Holger Rathgeber is the coauthor of That’s Not How We Do It Here!, a former executive at a medical products firm, and a principal at Kotter International.
The revised and updated tenth anniversary edition of the classic, beloved business fable that has changed millions of lives in organizations around the world.
Our Iceberg Is Melting is a simple story about doing well under the stress and uncertainty of rapid change. Based on the award-winning work of Harvard Business School’s John Kotter, it can help you and your colleagues thrive during tough times.
On an iceberg near the coast of Antarctica, group of beautiful emperor penguins live as they have for many years. Then one curious bird discovers a potentially devastating problem threatening their home—and almost no one listens to him.
The characters in the story—Fred, Alice, Louis, Buddy, the Professor, and NoNo—are like people you probably recognize in your own organization, including yourself. Their tale is one of resistance to change and heroic action, seemingly intractable obstacles and clever tactics for dealing with those obstacles. The penguins offer an inspiring model as we all struggle to adapt to new circumstances.
Our Iceberg Is Melting is based on John Kotter’s pioneering research into the eight steps that can produce needed change in any sort of group. After finishing the story, you’ll have a powerful framework for influencing your own team, no matter how big or small.
This tenth anniversary edition preserves the text of the timeless story, together with new illustrations, a revised afterword, and a Q&A with the authors about the responses they’ve gotten over the past decade. Prepare to be both enlightened and delighted, whether you’re already a fan of this classic fable or are discovering it for the first time.
“Whether you work in a business or the business of life, everyone from CEOs to high school students can gain from what they take from this story.” – from the foreword by Spencer Johnson, M.D., author of Who Moved My Cheese?
“. . . companies should buy a copy for everyone from the CEO to the stock clerk.” – Michelle Archer, USA Today
“I ordered and distributed sixty copies, evaluated its effect on our change effort, and then ordered five hundred more. . . . This is a gem.” – Heidi King, Department of Defense
“The penguins in this book will not only steal your heart, they’ll make you a smarter person.” – Mary Tyler Moore, actress, producer, director, and Academy Award nominee