Our Iceberg is Melting

This story seems heart-warming on the surface, but it has an undercurrent that left me feeling quite chilled.

By John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber

Book coverI’ve been picking motivational books up in charity shops again.

This one’s a fable along the lines of ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ only instead of mice this stars penguins.

The colony of emperor penguins live on an iceberg in Antarctica and have done so for as long as they can remember. They are quite content with their home and lives and see no reason to make any changes.

One day a more scientifically astute penguin realises the iceberg is melting and could split apart at any moment with devastating consequences. He knows he has to get the colony to relocate, but that he will meet resistance. Various characters are introduced, each with different personality traits reflecting the different types of people you meet in any group.

Amongst them there is NoNo who is permanently in denial, Alice who is practical and gets things done, Jordan the intellectual and Buddy the laidback, friendly penguin everyone likes and trusts.

Together they come up with a plan to get the colony to accept that change is inevitable and to work towards finding a solution.

A lot in the book reminded me of the workshop I’d attended a while back about developing resilience rather than resistance to change.

Ultimately the book gives an eight-part plan for dealing with change successfully – which means succeeding in getting everyone else on board with you.

The process starts with setting the stage:

  1. Create a sense of urgency – this involves ensuring that everyone understands the importance and necessity of the need to change and that it has to happen quickly.
  2. Pull a leadership team together – the team should have people with a mix of strengths ranging from diplomacy and authority to technical skills.
  3. Once you have your team and you’ve ensured the sense of urgency you have to decide on a plan of action. You develop a vision and the series of steps it will take to make that vision a reality.

Then comes putting the plan into practice and working towards achieving the vision. This involves:

  1. Communicating the plan so others understand what is happening and why it needs to.
  2. Empowering others to act by removing barriers to action.
  3. Producing short-term wins to incentivise and keep everyone on track.
  4. Not letting up, but continuing to apply pressure and keep up momentum.
  5. Making the change stick by encouraging the development of new traditions and habits.

The eight-part plan felt manipulative to me (which of course it is intended to be), and I wasn’t very comfortable with this. In the case of the penguin colony the change was necessary to save their lives and secure their futures which is all very laudable. But the book is intended for business managers who will most likely use the eight point process to make changes that will be beneficial to the business, but detrimental to the employees and possibly to the customers and environment as well.

The fable encourages the silencing of dissenting voices and sees everyone being accepting of change and going along with it as being a successful outcome. It doesn’t debate instances where change is either unnecessary or even dangerous, whereby resistance would be a positive and righteous behaviour.

When I look around me and see what is happening to our society, politics, education system and media, I feel that too many managers have been reading books like this and using the processes as means to ends that are anything but for the greater good.

Having differences of opinion, listening to different viewpoints, taking everyone’s needs into account, encouraging creativity and critical debate can lead to much longer term successes because people feel valued and appreciated. Shutting down debate and instilling a ‘one size fits all’ culture disenfranchises people, lowers morale and stifles the creativity and flexibility necessary for longer term success.

I liked the fable as a ‘cute story’ and I liked the nod to issues of global warming. I can understand how the eight-part process works and if applied to a life or death situation would be a good thing. But how many life or death situations are there really? Especially in businesses. Consequently, I couldn’t help reading it as a ‘how-to’ guide for oppression and that left me feeling almost as chilled as if I’d been standing on that iceberg along with those penguins.

Author: Anne

Join me in my journey to live a life less boring, one challenge at a time. Author of the forthcoming book 'Walking the Kungsleden: One Woman's Solo Wander Through the Swedish Arctic'.

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