Our Iceberg is Melting
Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions
By John Kotter, Holger Rathgeber
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber
All rights reserved.
Handle the challenge of change well, and you can prosper greatly. Handle it poorly, and you put yourself and others at risk
All too often people and organizations don't see the need for change. They don't correctly identify what to do, or successfully make it happen, or make it stick. Businesses don't. School systems don't. Nations don't.
We have studied the challenge of change for decades. We know the traps into which even very smart people fall. We know the steps that can assure group success. And we will show you what we have found.
Our method is showing, much more than telling, and showing with the method that has helped more people learn over the centuries than any other single technique: the fable.
Fables can be powerful because they take serious, confusing, and threatening subjects and make them clear and approachable. Fables can be memorable, unlike so much of the information that bombards us today and is forgotten tomorrow. They can stimulate thought, teach important lessons, and motivate anyone — young or old — to use those lessons. In our modern, high-tech world, we can easily forget this simple yet profound truth.
The fable that follows was inspired by John Kotter's award-winning research on how succesful change really happens. All of us encounter the basic issues in the story. Few of us encounter highly effective ways of dealing well with those issues.
If you know much about the setting in which we have placed our story — Antarctica — you'll see that life for our penguins is not exactly as you would find it on a National Geographic documentary. Fables are like that. If you think a fun story with illustrations must be for young children, you'll soon see this book is about real-life problems that frustrate nearly everyone in organizations.
For readers who would prefer to begin by learning about the history of this book, its intellectual underpinnings, the Eight Step change method, or exactly how this fable can help you succeed in an era of change, we have placed that material after the story on page 128. If that doesn't feel needed now, just find a comfortable chair and read on.
Our Iceberg Will Never Melt
Once upon a time a colony of penguins was living in the frozen Antarctic on an iceberg near what we call today Cape Washington.
The iceberg had been there for many, many years. It was surrounded by a sea rich in food. On its surface were huge walls of eternal snow that gave penguins shelter from dreadful winter storms.
As far back as any of the penguins could remember, they had always lived on that iceberg. "This is our home," they would tell you if you could ever find their world of ice and snow. They would also say, quite logically from their perspective, "and this will always be our home."
Where they lived, a waste of energy kills. Everyone in the colony knew they needed to huddle together to survive. So they had learned to depend on each other. They often behaved like a big family (which, of course, can be both good and bad).
The birds were truly beautiful. Called Emperor Penguins, they were the largest of seventeen types of Antarctic animals that seem perpetually to wear tuxedos.
Two hundred sixty-eight penguins lived in the colony. One of them was Fred.
Fred looked and acted much like the others. You would probably describe him as either "cute" or "dignified," unless you really dislike animals. But Fred was different from most penguins in one very important way.
Fred was unusually curious and observant.
Other penguins went hunting for creatures in the sea — quite necessary, since there was no other food in Antarctica. Fred fished less and studied the iceberg and the sea more.
Other penguins spent much of their time with friends and relatives. Fred was a good husband and father, but he socialized less than average. He frequently went off by himself to take notes on what he had observed.
You might think that Fred was an odd bird, perhaps the sort of penguin that others did not want to spend time with. But that wasn't really true. Fred was just doing what seemed right to him. As a result, he was becoming increasingly alarmed by what he saw.
Fred had a briefcase stuffed full of observations, ideas, and conclusions. (Yes, a briefcase. This is a fable.) The information was increasingly disturbing. The information was beginning to cry out:
The Iceberg Is Melting and Might Break Apart Soon!!
An iceberg that suddenly collapsed into many pieces would be a disaster for the penguins, especially if it occurred during the winter in a storm. Many of the older and younger birds would surely die. Who could say what all the consequences would be? Like all unthinkable events, there was no plan for how to deal with such a catastrophe.
Fred did not panic easily. But the more he studied his observations, the more he became unnerved.
Fred knew he had to do something. But he was in no position to make any pronouncements or dictate how others should act. He was not one of the leaders of the colony. He wasn't even a son, brother, or father of one of the leaders of the colony. And he had no track record as a credible iceberg forecaster.
Fred also remembered how fellow-penguin Harold had been treated when he once suggested that their home was becoming more fragile. When no one seemed interested, Harold tried to assemble some evidence. His efforts were greeted with:
"Harold, you really do worry too much. Have a squid, you'll feel better."
"Fragile?! Jump up and down Harold. Have fifty of us jump up and down at the same time. Does anything happen? Huh?"
"Your observations are fascinating Harold. But they can be interpreted in four very different ways. You see, if one makes the assumption ..."
Some birds said nothing, but they began to treat Harold differently. The change was subtle, but Fred had seen it. It was definitely not a change for the better.
Fred found himself feeling rather lonely.
What Do I Do Now?
The colony had a Leadership Council. It was also called the Group of Ten, led by the Head Penguin. (The teenagers had another name for the group, but that's another story.)
Alice was one of the ten bosses. She was a tough, practical bird who had a reputation for getting things done. She was also close to the colony, unlike a few of her peers who were more aloof. Actually all of their breed of penguins look a bit aloof, but they don't all behave that way.
Fred decided that Alice would be less likely to dismiss his story than other more senior penguins. So he went to see her. Alice being Alice, he did not have to schedule an appointment.
Fred told her of his studies and his conclusions. She listened carefully, even though, frankly, she wondered if Fred was having some sort of personal crisis.
But ... Alice being Alice, she did not ignore Fred. Instead, she said, skeptically, "Take me to the place that you think most clearly shows the problem."
That "place" was not on the upper surface of the iceberg, where the melting and its consequences were hard to see, but underneath and inside. Fred explained this to Alice. She listened, and not being the most patient of birds, said, "Fine, fine, fine. Let's go."
Penguins are vulnerable when they leap into the water because leopard seals and killer whales hide to catch careless birds. Without going into any unpleasant graphic detail, let's just say that you really don't want to be caught by a killer whale or leopard seal. So when Fred and Alice jumped into the sea, they were instinctively careful.
Below the surface, Fred pointed out fissures and other clear symptoms of deterioration caused by melting. Alice was amazed at how she had managed to ignore these signs.
Alice continued to follow Fred as he turned into a large hole at a sidewall of the iceberg. Through a canal a few meters wide, they swam deep into the heart of the ice, eventually reaching a spacious cave filled with water.
Alice tried to look as if she totally understood what she was seeing, but leadership was her specialty, not the science of icebergs. Fred saw the perplexed look. So when they returned to the surface, he explained.
To make a long story short —
Icebergs are not like ice cubes. The bergs can have cracks inside called canals. The canals can lead to large air bubbles called caves. If the ice melts sufficiently, cracks can be exposed to water, which would then pour into the canals and caves.
During a cold winter, the narrow canals filled with water can freeze quickly, trapping water inside the caves. But as the temperature goes lower and lower, the water in the caves will also freeze. Because a freezing liquid dramatically expands in volume, an iceberg could be broken into pieces.
After a few minutes, Alice began to see why Fred was so deeply concerned. The magnitude of the problem could be ...?
This was most definitely not good.
Alice was shaken, though she didn't show it. Instead, she asked Fred question after question.
"I need to think about what you have shown me," she told him, "and then quickly talk with a few of my fellow leaders." Her mind was already plotting away.
"I will need your assistance," she told Fred. "I need you to be prepared to help others see and feel the problem." After a short pause, she added, "And be prepared that some birds won't want to see any problem."
Alice bid Fred good-bye. Fred felt both better and worse.
Better — He was no longer the only penguin who saw the potential for disaster. He wasn't the only penguin who felt a sense of urgency to do something about the problem.
Worse — He did not yet see any solution. And he did not much like the way Alice had said "be prepared" and "some birds won't want to see any problem."
The awful Antarctic winter was only two months away.
Problem? What Problem?
During the next few days, Alice contacted all members of the Leadership Council, including Louis, the Head Penguin. She asked them to go on the journey she had taken with Fred. Most listened to her. But they were very skeptical. Was Alice having a personal problem, perhaps with her marriage?!
None of those with whom Alice spoke showed any enthusiasm about the idea of swimming into a big dark cave. A few Council members could not even find time to see Alice. They said that they were busy with other important matters. They were dealing with a complaint from a rather loud bird that another penguin was making faces behind his back (a somewhat confusing issue since penguins cannot make faces).
They were also debating whether their weekly meetings should last two or two and one-half hours, a hot issue for those who liked jabbering and those who did not.
Alice asked Louis, the Head Penguin, to invite Fred to the next Leadership Council meeting to present and defend his conclusions. "After what you have told me about him, I am certainly very interested in hearing what Fred has to say," the Head Penguin said — diplomatically.
Louis did not, however, schedule time for a presentation by this relatively unknown penguin who had never before spoken to the group of leaders. But Alice was insistent, reminding her boss that they had to take some risks, "which you have bravely done all your life." That was true, more or less, and Louis was flattered to hear Alice say so (even though her motives were pretty obvious).
The Head Penguin agreed to invite Fred. Alice did.
In preparation for his meeting with the leaders, Fred considered writing a speech in which he would give statistics about the shrinking size of their home, the canals, the caves filled with water, the number of fissures obviously caused by melting, and so on. But when he asked a few of the older members of the colony about the Group of Ten, he learned that:
Two of the birds on the Leadership Council loved to debate the validity of any statistics. And they loved to debate for hours and hours and hours and hours. These two were the more vocal advocates lobbying for longer meetings.
One of the Leadership Council members would usually fall asleep — or at least come awfully close — during a long presentation with statistics. His snoring could be disruptive.
Another bird was very uncomfortable with numbers. He tried to hide his feelings, usually by nodding his head a great deal. All the head nodding tended to annoy some other members of the group, which could lead to bad moods and bickering.
At least two other Council members made it pretty clear that they did not like to be TOLD much of anything. They saw it as their job to be doing the TELLING.
After much thought, Fred chose an approach to the upcoming meeting that was different from his original plan.
Fred constructed a model of their iceberg. It was four feet by five feet and made of real ice and snow. The construction was not easy for Fred (especially since he had no hands, fingers, and opposable thumbs).
When he was done, Fred knew it was not perfect. But Alice thought it was a very creative idea and definitely good enough to help the leaders begin to see the problem.
The night before the meeting, Fred and his friends moved the model to where the leadership team met, which, unfortunately, was on the highest mountain of the iceberg. Halfway up the hill, the grumbling began. "Remind me why I'm doing this" was one of the kinder comments from his friends.
If penguins could grunt and groan, there would have been plenty of both.
The next morning, the leaders were already standing around the model when Fred arrived. Some were engaged in a lively debate. Others looked mystified.
Alice introduced Fred to the group.
Louis started the meeting, as the Head Penguin always did. "Fred, we want to hear about your discovery." Fred bowed respectfully. He could sense openness from Louis and some members of the group. Others seemed neutral. A few made little effort to hide their skepticism.
Fred gathered his thoughts — and courage — and then told the story of his discovery. He explained the methods he had devised to study their home. He described how he had found the deterioration, the open canals, the big exposed cave full of water — all of which had to be caused by melting.
Constantly Fred used the model to orient his audience and illustrate his points. All but one of the Leadership Council penguins moved closer to the model.
When Fred removed the top half of the structure to show the big cave and explain its disastrous impact, you could have heard a snowflake falling on the ground.
When the demonstration was completed, there was silence.
Alice started the discussion by saying, "I saw all this with my own eyes. The cave full of water is huge. It's scary. I saw all the other signs of destruction that must be caused by the melting. We cannot ignore this anymore!"
A few penguins nodded.
One of the Leadership Council members was an older, heavyset bird named NoNo. NoNo was responsible for weather forecasting. There were two theories as to the origin of his name. One was that his great grandfather had been called NoNo. Another theory was that his first words as a baby penguin were not "Ma" or "Pa," but "No, No."
NoNo was accustomed to being blamed for being wrong in his weather forecasts, but this business about the iceberg melting was too much for him. He spoke up, barely able to control his emotions. "I have regularly reported to this group about my observations of the climate and its effect on our iceberg," he said. "As I have told you before, periods of melting during warm summers are common. During winter, everything returns to normal. What he saw, or thinks he saw, is nothing new. There is no reason to worry! Our iceberg is solid and strong, and can withstand such fluctuations!"
Each sentence from NoNo came out louder than the last. If penguins could become red faced, which they can't, he would have been red faced.
When NoNo saw that the support of some of the others was turning in his favor, he pointed to Fred and said dramatically:
"This junior bird says melting ice has opened that canal. But maybe it hasn't. He says the canal will freeze this winter and trap the water in a big cave. But maybe it wont! He says the water in the cave will freeze. But maybe it will not! He says freezing water always expands in volume. But maybe he's wrong! And even if all he says turns out to be true, is our iceberg really so fragile that freezing water in a cave can break it into dangerously small pieces? How do we know what he says is not just — a theory? Wild speculation? Fearmongering?!!!"
NoNo paused, glared at the others, and threw what he hoped was a knock-out punch:
"Can he guarantee that his data and conclusions are 100percent accurate?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Our Iceberg is Melting by John Kotter, Holger Rathgeber. Copyright © 2005 John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.