It's easier to relate to a fable than a theory. That's why this summary of Our Iceberg is Melting - on the surface, a little story about penguins - is packed full of vital change management lessons.
If you’re a penguin, you have to be ready for surprises. Hunting for fish, you could be caught by a leopard seal or killer whale. Your neighbor could beat you up, trying to steal your food. Or your iceberg could melt and break in pieces.
But “Our Iceberg Is Melting” is not really a story about penguins. It’s about leadership, relationships, and communication. But - most importantly - it’s about managing change: how you initiate change, get others to buy-in to the change, and how you make change stick.
The authors, John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber, say it “does not look remotely like a typical professional book”: the plot is set in Antarctica, and the characters are penguins – funny birds that cannot fly and look as if they were wearing tuxedos.
However, these visual stimuli create a very memorable image. And when you have to deal with change in real life, it will be easier to recall this fable, rather than to remember many chapters of theoretical advice.
Just ask yourself what your iceberg is, and put yourself in the penguins’ shoes.
Here’s our summary of “Our Iceberg Is Melting.”
There was a colony of Emperor penguins living on an iceberg. One of them was called Fred. Fred was different from the rest of penguins: he would socialize less, and instead study the sea and the iceberg.
At some point, he realized a terrifying thing: their iceberg was melting! It meant the colony was in big danger, as many of the young and older penguins would not survive the collapse. Something had to be done about it.
Fred wasn’t influential enough to make an announcement himself. He needed someone else.
So Fred decided to talk to Alice – to one of the ten penguin bosses, the most approachable one. She listened carefully, paying attention, but asked if Fred was going through a personal crisis.
Alice and Fred went to a place that showed the problem most clearly – to the hole in the iceberg which led to a huge cave filled with water. Alice didn’t understand what she saw – because she was a leader, not a scientist. So Fred had to explain: during a cold winter, the water will freeze, and expand in volume, and the iceberg will be broken in pieces. And the winter was only two months away.
Alice contacted the penguin board members, but no one wanted to go swim and see the problem. Louis, the Head Penguin, invited Fred to present his conclusions at the board meeting.
The members of the Leadership Council had different characters. Two of the birds liked debating about statistics. One liked nodding, only because he didn’t want to get involved. One kept falling asleep. Two more liked to tell others what to do - not hearing it themselves.
Fred understood a traditional speech will have no impact on these penguins, so he brought an iceberg model made of real ice and snow and used it to illustrate his points. Alice confirmed she saw it with her own eyes. Many penguins nodded in agreement.
But not NoNo. NoNo was in charge of weather forecasting, and was always blamed for making mistakes. But he didn’t want to be blamed this time – it was too big of a deal.
So he started to provide counter arguments – or rather, to put seeds of disbelief in other penguins’ minds. Maybe melting ice didn’t open the canal. Maybe the canal will not freeze and trap the water. Maybe the water won’t expand in volume. Maybe it all is just speculation.
Yet, the penguins decided to form a committee to find a solution. One of the birds suggested keeping it secret, so that the routine of the penguins on the iceberg remains the same. Alice objected – she said that issue was too huge to be kept secret.
Suddenly, Fred brought a glass bottle. He didn’t know what it was – but it looked like ice. He filled it with water, saying if the glass broke tomorrow morning, it would be proof that the iceberg would break as well.
The next morning, the bottle broke in pieces.
The bosses decided to assemble the colony and let them know. The iceberg model and the bottle convinced them – yet, this also created chaos as the birds started to worry.
(To understand why we often react to the prospect of change with shock, fear, denial, and frustration, you might want to take a look at the change curve model which has been popular with psychologists for decades).
Louis, the Head Penguin, gathered Fred, Alice, and two other penguins – Buddy, a very amiable bird, and Jordan, a very smart one, asking them to form a team to solve the issue. Each of them had their own strengths:
Louis was wise, patient, although not liked by some younger penguins;
Alice was the one that would make things happen; she didn’t care about the status, and was impossible to intimidate;
Buddy was not ambitious, and not even smart – but he was well trusted in their penguin community;
Fred was creative and curious;
And Jordan was logical and well-read.
They started discussing the problem, but the conversation was difficult at first. It seemed that they weren’t talking about the same thing. So the Head Penguin suggested having lunch together.
Penguins love squid, but squid isn’t easy to catch. To find enough food for everyone, they needed to cooperate and coordinate their movements. After having the meal together, they talked for hours.
Louis’s plan worked – he was able to make a team out of five separate individuals.
The penguins had different ideas about how to solve their iceberg problem. Someone suggested drilling a hole to let the water and pressure out. It would prevent the iceberg from exploding in the upcoming winter, but wouldn’t stop it from melting. Someone suggested finding a perfect iceberg, and someone – creating superglue to put the iceberg together. These were bad ideas. Then one of the penguins said,
“Maybe you should do what Fred did when he found our terrible problem. Walk around, keeping our eyes and minds open. Be curious.”
And then they saw a seagull in the sky.
At first, the penguins couldn’t believe a bird could fly. Then they talked to him – and it appeared the seagull was a Scout looking for where his clan could live next. He explained they were nomads, and never stayed in the same place for a long time.
The penguins stopped to think about it. They and seagulls were different. Seagulls could fly, and they couldn’t. Then Alice said:
“We’re different… That means we can’t just copy them. But the idea is very interesting… We’d learn to move around.”
The next day, they had a meeting with the colony again. To help the penguins understand his idea, Louis didn’t just tell them about it: instead, he asked questions - in other words, he used the Socratic method. Do we respect each other? Do we value discipline? Are these beliefs connected to a large piece of ice?
The answer was obvious. Even though some part of the penguins were confused, and others were skeptical, overall, they accepted the idea. There was one problem though – not everyone was present at the meeting.
So Alice came up with an idea: they needed to put slogans on iceposters. Everywhere, even underwater. Everyone had to know what was going on.
The good news was that a dozen penguins agreed to be Scouts. The mysterious news was that a kindergarten teacher started telling the young penguins scary stories about killer whales, which gave them nightmares. And the very troubling news: adult penguins never picked food for other adult penguins, only for their children – which meant the Scouts wouldn't have a supply of food.
These were obstacles, and they had to be overcome. Because even the most devoted penguins started to surrender, as their families were unnerved by NoNo’s skepticism, their children had nightmares, and they were scared they’d be left without food.
Buddy’s role was to talk to the teacher and find out why she would make things more complicated with her stories. Her answer was simple: she was scared she wouldn’t be needed once they started a nomadic lifestyle. But Buddy explained to her that children will need to learn even more then.
The teacher was reassured. And instead of horror stories, she started to tell children tales of heroism under the circumstance of change.
Then a chain reaction happened. Sally Ann, a kindergarten student, whose mind was full of heroic stories, met Alice and asked: how can I become a hero?
Alice responded that she just had to let her parents know the Penguin Head needed their help in catching fish for Scouts. And Sally Ann did pass the message on – to her parents, and to her friends (of which she had many). And then they passed it to their own parents.
The penguins picked Scouts, but who would catch fish for them?
Little Sally Ann came up with the “Heroes Day Celebration” – a celebration with a performance, a band, and a flea market, the price of admission to which was two fish per adult. And that was the fish for the Scouts.
When they got back, the Scouts told amazing stories about what they’d seen. The birds who were skeptical got less skeptical. And that was a short-term win.
The birds got enthusiastic, and many volunteered to be among the second wave of Scouts. Alice tried to keep the momentum and not let the birds lose courage. Some still wanted to wait till the next winter.
They found an iceberg, and moved there in May, before the Antarctica winter started. They had problems: the wind was strong, they didn’t know all the safe places on the iceberg, and so on. But those problems weren’t too bad.
The next season, they moved again. Not because the iceberg was bad, but because it was crucial not to stop.
Many changes happened to the colony in subsequent years. The Scouts’ status went up. “Scouting” became a new required subject at penguin school. And the colony became nomads.
Louis was asked to tell the younger penguins the story of the Great Change. He did, splitting the story into the steps the leaders had taken:
1. Realizing there was a problem, Fred created a sense of urgency;
2. They formed a group in charge of solving the issue;
3. They found a vision of the future;
4. They communicated that vision to others;
5. They removed the obstacles;
6. They achieved a short-term win;
7. They let the new way of life to get established;
8. They ensured the old traditions will not come back.
That was the end of the story.
Of course, you’re not a penguin, and you probably won’t have to look for new icebergs and care about fish for Scouts. The challenges you’ll have in life will be different. But if you ever face a necessity to undergo a change, just read this story again. You’ll remind yourself that change is not inherently bad, or impossible. And you’ll see it doesn’t have to be painful.
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