by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber., New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. 137 pages.

Reviewed by Diane Byington, Ph.D.

When was the last time a business book made you smile? I believe this book will put a smile on the face of even the most discouraged business person. It’s a fable about a group of penguins whose iceberg may or may not be melting. If it melts it will break apart and leave the group homeless, and many penguins would die. Only Fred can see the potential disaster, but he’s a nobody in the penguin colony. Fred finally gets an audience with Alice, one of the leaders, and he shows her the fissures and other symptoms of melting. Alice is amazed that she had managed to ignore the signs, and she takes the problem to the leadership council.

The leaders have a variety of reactions, like leaders in all organizations. Some of them debate the validity of Fred’s statistics. One falls asleep. Another nods at everything because he is uncomfortable with numbers, but doesn’t understand a thing. In desperation, Fred constructs a model of their iceberg that shows the problem, but even he cannot guarantee 100% that the iceberg is melting, only that it appears to be. The head penguins realize that they need to tell the rest of the colony about this potential disaster. They call a general meeting, with the purpose of reducing complacency and increasing urgency.

The colony is understandably very stirred up by the announcement that it might lose its home. The next day the leadership council appoints a team of birds to guide the colony through this difficult period. On the team are five birds with different experiences and different perspectives. This team asks for suggestions from the colony and they receive many, some of which are useful and others are not. They talk with a seagull, who tells of its clan’s nomadic existence. Hmmm. Maybe that would work for the penguins, too. They had created a vision of a new future.

When they communicate the vision to the colony, about a third of the penguins are convinced the vision has merit, a third aren’t sure, and the rest are either totally confused or hostile toward the idea. The planning team talks with everyone, and in a week or so some of the birds are getting excited about the idea. One young penguin embraces the idea and convinces her parents and others that it’s a good idea, which removed obstacles to action. Soon everyone felt empowered to do something to help the vision become a reality.

Scouts are sent out and find the first new home for the colony, creating a short-term win. This is a good enough site, so the colony moves. Then the scouts look for a better home, not letting up and becoming complacent. The birds move again and again. In time, the penguins adapt and the colony thrives. The planning team’s last job is to ensure that changes would not be overcome by stubborn, hard-to-die traditions, and they keep the colony moving. Over time the colony becomes less afraid of change and the penguins work well together to keep leaping into a better and better future.

John Kotter is the guru of change, and this fable demonstrates the change process in a wonderfully entertaining story. If you want to learn more about his eight-stage process of change, get his 1996 book, Leading Change. The steps include: establishing a sense of urgency, creating a guiding coalition, developing a vision and strategy, communicating the change vision, empowering employees for broad-based action, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and anchoring new approaches in the culture.

Given how quickly our world is changing and how frustrating it is to try and adapt to this change, what could be more helpful than a simple little story of successful change among a colony of penguins? Makes you smile, and serves as a good reminder that there is hope if we have the courage to hold ourselves accountable to these basics through continuous measurement and improvement.

— Diane Byington is a writer and coach who consults with The Booth Company.