I recently read a book by John Kotter on the subject ‘managing successful change’ called Our Iceberg Is Melting. Kotter is a Professor at Harvard Business School, and has been writing on the topics of ‘successful change’ and leadership for several decades. Written in 2005, the book approaches what could very easily be  a dry, academic subject, through the story-telling medium of the ‘fable’.

Given our increasingly fast-paced and rapidly changing modern lives, it occurred to me that there may be lessons we can take away from the penguin story. So, what follows is a brief summary of the key learnings from the story, and how we might apply some much-needed ‘penguin-logic’ to our daily lives as humans.

Our Iceberg Is Melting tells the tale of a colony of Emperor Penguins in Antarctica. The colony has inhabited the same iceberg for generations, and they have naturally come to think of it at their permanent home. Then, one day, a curious-minded penguin called Fred makes the unwelcome discovery that their iceberg is melting, endangering the lives of the entire colony.

What follows is the tale of how the penguins cope with this impending crisis, and the inevitable change that has been foisted upon them. It is a story of denial, fear, resistance to change, penguin politics, overcoming obstacles, heroism, and ultimate success.

Although originally written with the business community firmly in mind, Our Iceberg Is Melting is also a parable that can easily be applied to coping with change and life transition at a more personal level. Not merely a business tool to be exploited by the alchemists of the business world: the ‘Management Consultants’!

For a simple parable, the story is written throughout with genuine humour, insight and 3-dimensional penguin characterisation. It’s also a very short read (less than 150 pages), and so can be comfortably digested in one sitting. Well worth the investment of time by anyone interested in successfully navigating through life’s transitions, whether at work or at home.

The Cast of Penguins

The main cast of penguin protagonists is as follows:

  • Fred – the curious, observant and creative bird who makes the initial discovery of iceberg ‘meltageddon’.
  • Alice – one of the 10 bosses of the penguin leadership council. A tough and practical bird, with a reputation for getting things done, but prone to impatience and irritability.
  • Louis – the colony’s older, wiser and patient Head Penguin. Leader of the penguin council.
  • Buddy – trusted, popular and well-liked by most of the colony. A compassionate penguin, with boyish good looks.
  • The Professor – a.k.a. Jordan. An intellectual, analytical and well-read penguin. Highly knowledgable, but with a tendency to annoy the other penguins with his logical, scientific diatribes.
  • NoNo – No prizes for guessing this penguin’s key character trait! A negative, change-averse and antagonistic penguin, who does his best to undermine the other penguins efforts to challenge the status quo.

8 Key Lessons from the Penguin Fable

Following the various trials and tribulations of the penguin colony, the tale concludes by distilling 8 clear, universally applicable ‘lessons’ for successfully managing and implementing change:

1. Create a Sense of Urgency

The first step is acknowledging that a problem exists and convincing others to see it. Establishing the need for change by demonstrating the risks of maintaining the status quo and by showing that you are ‘living on a melting iceberg’. The next step is convincing others to accept that there is a problem, to see the need for change, and the importance of taking immediate action. It helps if you can gain the support of an influential ‘champion’ at this stage (like Alice). Someone who has credibility, charisma and leadership skills, who can help garner wider support and buy-in. Someone who can help you build the case for change with the wider group.

2. Establish a Guiding Team

Establish an effective team to guide and implement the change. Team members should be selected for positive traits such as: leadership, charisma, communication, credibility, analytical skills, and a sense of urgency. The strongest and most effective teams are multi-faceted, comprising of individuals with different strengths which complement one another. Everyone in the group should have a clearly defined role, and each should understand what their individual role is.

3. Develop a Change Vision

Create an alternative ‘vision’ for the future. One that is clearly defined and shared by the group. Identify what needs to be done. Clarify how the future will differ from the past (future vs current state), and how you intend to make the future vision a reality. This will involve formulating a clearly defined Change Strategy and a Change Plan, which set out the specific action steps necessary to implement the change and make it a reality.

4. Communicate the Vision

This is the first step in the practical implementation of the change. Communicate the new vision to the group. Explain the change vision and strategy to as many people as possible. It’s critical to ensure that people understand the reasons for the change, the dangers of leaving things as they are, and the benefits of introducing change. This will ensure that the change gains broad support and buy-in. Act in cooperation with others to help avoid resistance. Creating a sense of urgency will also reduce complacency and help gain broader support for the change. Make sure the ‘communicating’ is done by someone charismatic, well-liked and credible, so that the new vision is more likely to be understood and accepted. Incredible things can happen when everyone buys-in to an idea.

5. Empower Others to Act

Give those who buy-in the authority to act. Remove as many obstacles as possible so that change supporters can take practical steps to help make the new vision a reality. Give people to power to overcome any barriers to change (frustrations, distractions, anxieties, etc).

6. Short-Term Wins

Find evidence of any early successes, however small, and publicise them to the group. Demonstrate tangible, unambiguous evidence of success at the very earliest opportunity. Make sure that any successes are visible and publicly recognised, to show that the change was the right thing to do.

7. Maintain Momentum

Keep taking daily actions to drive the new habits forward, and to avoid people slipping back into old, familiar habits. Be persistent. Don’t let up. Avoid complacency. Use early successes as motivation and as a springboard to drive change forward. Be determined to take consistent action until the vision becomes reality.

8. Embed the New Culture

Old, familiar habits die hard. Ensure that the new habits and behaviours are widely adopted and practiced on a daily basis. Maintain this level of vigilance until the ‘new culture’ is firmly established, and until new ways of working are fully embedded and have replaced the old traditions.

Other Key Learnings:

In addition to the 8 key lessons summarised in the penguin story, Kotter’s academic research over the years has also revealed several further key insights:

1. Decision Paralysis

Don’t wait until you are 100% certain before taking taking action. Every decision inherently carries some element of uncertainty and risk. We can never make a a decision with complete foresight. We will never be in possession of all of the facts. There will always be some data missing, margins of error, or data to the contrary. We could wait forever for the perfect time to change our lives. There is no perfect time. All decision-making involves balancing risks and probabilities. Don’t fall prey to decision paralysis.

2. Thinking vs Feeling

Another of Kotter’s discoveries from his academic research is that the role of feeling often outweighs thinking when it comes to managing change. People are far more likely to accept change on the basis of compelling experiences and visual stimuli, than on the basis of dry data and formal analyses.

‘Feeling’ differently about something can change behaviour far more than ‘thinking’ differently on an intellectual level. Much of change is emotional rather than analytical. Therefore, to be successful, change must win-over both hearts and minds!

Kotter’s findings reminds us of the critical importance of the ‘human’ dimension in managing successful change: personal relationships, communication, patience and compassion.

3. The Benefits of Story Telling

Kotter’s 8 step process can be applied to people and organisations dealing with change both in business and society at large, including: schools, charities, community groups, sports clubs, and even families.

Using penguin-language and metaphors from the story (icebergs, heroes, scouts, Fred), can help facilitate useful group discussions about change by making the topic seem less intimidating and confusing. Stories are unthreatening. People can easily relate to the characters in the story, helping to demystify and simplify the subject matter, laying out the logical steps involved and the typical obstacles encountered along the way.

In this way, the penguin story can become a powerful tool for helping people to manage change in their own lives, in finding better ways of behaving or more efficient ways of doing things.

4. Tool for Self-Analysis

The penguin fable also prompts us to ask questions about our own lives, which we can then use to manage our own paths to change and personal development:

  • Am I living on a melting iceberg?
  • Where are the icebergs in my life?
  • Who are the Freds, Alices, Buddys and NoNos in my life?
  • Which penguin am I?

And So…

The 8 lessons of the penguin story provides a framework which enables both individuals and organisations to:

  • Identify icebergs, encourage creativity, and avoid stagnation.
  • Control change in a structured and deliberate manner.
  • Reduce stress, anxiety and confusion about change.
  • Clearly understand risks and opportunities.
  • Work smarter, by restructuring who does what and how.
  • Increase productivity by reducing waste, stripping out inefficiency, and increasing quality.

Dealing with change is becoming an increasingly integral life skill, both in the work-place and at home. At first glance, the penguin story might appear patronising or dumbed-down to us sensible ‘grown ups’.

However, Kotter’s research shows us that story-telling is a simple and effective means of promoting ideas, concepts and of imparting understanding. The method doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated or clever to be effective.

Like many things in life, the simple and straight-forward approach is often the best…