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April 2014


Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions


by John Kotter (St. Martin's Press, 2005)


What are the big take-aways?


In the “Welcome,” John Kotter and his co-author Holger Rathgeber share the take-aways rather succinctly on page 3:


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….We have studied the challenge of change for decades.  We know the traps into which even smart people fall.  We know the steps that can assure group success.  And we will show you what we have found.


Using the “fable” style of story-telling, Our Iceberg is Melting illustrates Kotter’s eight steps of successful change through the tale of a colony of penguins whose home and way of life is disrupted by disturbing observations about their iceberg.  They have to make big changes immediately or the colony is in peril.


Why do I like it?


First of all, I like Kotter’s ideas.  Kotter’s eight steps in the process of successful change are: (1) create a sense of urgency; (2) pull together the guiding team; (3) develop the change vision and strategy; (4) communicate for understanding and buy in; (5) empower others to act; (6) produce short-term wins; (7) don’t let up; and (8) create a new culture.  In the fable format, these principles are thoughtfully and clearly demonstrated (and in much more positive terms than Kotter’s popular Harvard Business Review article, originally published in 1994, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”).


While the penguin colony metaphor might seem a bit “cute” at first, Kotter and his co-author have a way of making it all seem surprisingly relatable as they walk the reader through the eight steps.  What I like the most about it is that the penguin leaders and their often change-resistant followers portray general personality types recognizable in any organization; though it’s very subtle, the fable format offers specific strategies for effective change leadership, and for dealing with common manifestations of change resistance.


In what situations would this be useful?


The message of this book is always timely, because change is always happening. That said, the eight steps are a powerful process and – in my opinion – must therefore be used judiciously.  People and organizations become paralyzed with overwhelm if changes are too frequently cast as monumental and critical, or if they go on for too long.  In my experience, people thrive in an atmosphere where their work is meaningful to them, and where observable progress is being made and recognized throughout the organization.  They will also step up willingly and enthusiastically to perform above and beyond the call of duty for defined periods of time if they trust that when their leaders “create a sense of urgency,” it is because the organization is facing a true need to transform.


I would recommend this book as a source of ideas, advice and reassurance for any leader who is confronting the prospect a big change or who is already in the midst of one.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


I recommend the revised edition of Kotter’s 1996 landmark book, Leading Change (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), as the best complement to Our Iceberg Is Melting, but Kotter has written other books on the topic that you might want to check out, as well.  I am also a huge fan Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change (Harvard Business Press, 2009), previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library.  For strategies to deal with the fallout from less successful change efforts, I’d suggest taking a look at Reina and Reina’s Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace: Seven Steps to Renew Confidence, Commitment and Energy (Berrett-Koehler, 2010), also previously reviewed in the Leadership Library.


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