How to Initiate Change and Get People Onboard

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Our Iceberg Is Melting" by John P. Kotter and Holger Rathgeber. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What can the fable Our Iceberg Is Melting teach you about initiating change? Why do so many people resist change? How can you kickstart change in your organization?

In their fable about change, Kotter and Rathgeber discuss the difficulties of initiating change in a company. They discuss the difficulties of convincing others that major change is necessary and what to do when you encounter resistance.

Keep reading for advice on how to initiate change in your company or personal life.

How Fred Initiated Change

Our Iceberg is Melting is a fable that teaches us how to make major, frightening—but necessary—changes within an organization, and how to get others to go along with those changes. 

Dr. John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber wrote Our Iceberg Is Melting to teach people how to adapt their organizations to a rapidly changing world. Though the authors’ backgrounds are in business, the lessons from Iceberg are applicable in practically any setting. 

There are a few reasons why people handle change poorly:

  • They don’t see any need to change; in other words, they’re complacent
  • Even after deciding to make changes, they don’t have a clear vision for the future
  • They don’t have a good plan to implement the changes
  • They don’t take steps to make the changes permanent
Some argue that people are hard-wired to resist change; that millions of years of evolution have ingrained the instinct to accept “good enough” (which is to say, survival), rather than risk that stability to pursue something better. Furthermore, change is risky—the outcome is uncertain, and people don’t like uncertainty. To sum it up using a common idiom: People prefer the devil they know (the current situation) to the devil they don’t (change). 

The Threat

In the fable, a colony of emperor penguins lived on an iceberg in the Antarctic. They’d lived on that iceberg as far back as any of them could remember, and they saw no reason why that should ever change. 

However, a penguin named Fred made an alarming discovery: The iceberg was riddled with deep cracks due to Earth’s warming climate, and those cracks were filled with water. When winter came, that water would freeze and expand, which could shatter the whole iceberg.

Fred took his findings to Alice, one of the leaders of the penguin colony. Alice took Fred seriously and arranged for him to present what he’d learned to the Leadership Council—including the Council head, a penguin named Louis.

Fred was grateful for the opportunity that Alice was giving him, but he knew that some of the other Council members would be harder to convince than she’d been. He considered what he knew about the penguins on the Council, and concluded that simply stating the facts wouldn’t be enough to win most of them over—it would take more than that to initiate the change.

In order to make it clear why the penguins need to take action, the authors created a situation that was both extremely dangerous and easy to see: Namely, that the place the penguins lived was falling apart beneath their feet.

Unfortunately, problems in real life aren’t always so visible or so immediate—you might have trouble convincing others that there even is a problem. Creativity, Inc. offers some suggestions on how to make your coworkers see the need for change, including:

Discuss why you need to change (this is what Fred did in the penguin fable). Examine your current processes honestly, and look for problems.
Accept—even embrace—the fact that the change may not go smoothly at first.
Promise yourself and your coworkers that nobody will be punished for mistakes. 

The Presentation

Fred decided to create urgency with a dramatic presentation: He brought a glass bottle that had washed up on the iceberg, filled the bottle with water and capped it. When the water inside froze, it expanded and shattered the bottle—the same thing that he was worried would happen to their iceberg. The shattered bottle was clear evidence that Fred’s theory held water (so to speak). 

One Council member, an older bird aptly named NoNo, still wasn’t convinced. NoNo argued that the iceberg had existed for as far back as the colony’s history remembered. Furthermore, some melting during the summer months was perfectly normal. 

However, the other Council members decided that they couldn’t risk the colony on the chance that Fred might be wrong. They began spreading word of the problem to the other penguins. They invited reluctant penguins like NoNo to see Fred’s shattered bottle, which convinced most of them that something had to be done.

Strategies for Effective Communication

Effective communication is a recurring theme in this story. Change requires communication—first to convince people that you need to make a change, like Fred convinced the Council in this section. Then you’ll have to communicate with your team and, later, with the organization as a whole. At each step of the process, you have to make sure that you’re getting your message across in ways that catch your audience’s interest and approval. The Harvard Business Review explains three strategies for effective communication during a major organizational change, as well as why people often fail to use those strategies:

1. Explain what you want. Don’t just hand out lists of tasks for your employees to do; make sure they understand what the end goal is, and how their jobs contribute to that goal. Managers and team leaders often miss this step because they’re too eager to start doing something, or because they think it’s helpful to hand out specific tasks and not “burden” others with the details. As a result, they don’t spend enough time on the unglamorous work of making sure everyone understands why the organization needs to change, how it needs to change, and why it needs to change now.

2. Show that you’re living up to what you’re asking for. This doesn’t just mean embodying your organization’s new values or processes while you’re out in public—it also means making sure that your day-to-day management decisions support the change, and that you’re leaving time in your personal schedule to discuss the ongoing change with your employees and adjust your approach as needed. Leaders often miss this step because they don’t prioritize the organizational change; they get caught up in the “regular” day-to-day issues of the company and don’t leave themselves enough time. Managing a major change—and managing your own decisions in light of that change—is time-consuming and difficult, and many leaders simply aren’t prepared for it.

3. Track resources and progress. Major changes require a lot of resources; not just money, but also people’s time and skills. Furthermore, the effects of major changes often aren’t fully measurable by the company’s existing metrics, since those metrics are usually calibrated to the company’s pre-change practices. Therefore, make sure that you’re committing all of the necessary resources to your organizational change, and that you’re prepared in advance to measure the full effects of that change. Much like the first point, leaders often miss or underperform on this point because it’s dull and tedious. People want major changes to be exciting, so they don’t commit the necessary time and energy to the “boring” work of resource allocation, or developing and testing new metrics for the company’s new direction.
How to Initiate Change and Get People Onboard

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Here's what you'll find in our full Our Iceberg Is Melting summary:

  • A fable about the necessary steps in making major changes
  • Dr. John Kotter’s eight-step process for change
  • Why your job isn’t done just because you accomplished your goal

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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