How to Spread Ideas of Change in an Organization

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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Does your organization require major changes to stay afloat but others are resisting change? Do you want to know how to convince others about what needs to be done?

In their fable about leadership and change, John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber discuss the difficulties of enacting change within an organization. They provide advice on how to slowly spread ideas until most of the members are on board.

Here’s how to spread ideas of change within an organization.

How to Spread the Word

In the fable Our Iceberg Is Melting, a penguin named Fred noticed that the iceberg in which the colony lives was riddled with cracks. He first called together a meeting to initialize change, then another penguin named Louis worked to put together a team. The third step was to put together a plan, which they did with the help of a passing nomadic seagull: leave the iceberg.

Now that the team has an idea for how to save the colony, they need to get the other penguins onboard. In this chapter, we’ll see how Fred, Louis, and the others spread the word to the rest of the colony and build support for their vision through. Here’s how to spread ideas in a company.

Analysis: How to Get Your Team Onboard

The book The Leadership Challenge gives a seven-step process for getting others on board with an idea. Let’s look at how these principles apply to the steps the colony leadership team takes to win the support of the other penguins:

StepHow the penguins use it
Get input from your team. People will be more enthusiastic about a plan that they’ve contributed to. This happened in Step 3 of Iceberg, when the team worked together to create their vision of moving the colony to a safer place.
Be unique. Your idea has to be something unusual and exciting, or else nobody will care about it. The team is doing something that the colony’s never done before. It’s exciting and attention-grabbing. A small part of that attention ends up being negative, which is almost inevitable when you’re trying something new.
Focus on why. Nobody gets excited about just following orders—they want to know the reasons behind what they’re doing. Starting with Fred’s first presentation to the Council, he and the team have been clear about the danger to the colony and used it as the driving force for the migration.
Use vivid imagery. Engage people’s imaginations with visual descriptions, metaphors, and symbolism. Fred’s bottle demonstration from Step 1 gave a clear picture of what could happen to their iceberg, and it’s an image that the team will repeatedly come back to as they spread the word about their plan. 
Harness people’s emotions. An emotional connection to your project won’t just boost people’s enthusiasm, it’ll keep the project fresh in their minds for a longer time.The team harnesses both the fear of what will happen if they don’t leave, and excitement about the opportunities that await them in their new home. 
Show excitement. Your teammates and employees won’t show energy if you don’t. Speak quickly (but clearly), and move around while you talk; within reason, of course.This step is a large part of why Buddy is the team’s people-penguin. He has a natural energy and enthusiasm that gets other penguins to like him, and listen to what he’s saying. 
Be optimistic.Louis’s opening speech to the rest of the colony emphasises two things: That they can and will successfully move the colony to a new iceberg.That they won’t lose anything of value by doing so—that their current iceberg is nothing but a chunk of ice, and moving to a new one won’t change who they are as penguins or as a colony. 

The Big Speech

Louis’s first step in spreading the word about their new vision was to call all of the penguins together for an announcement. 

After Louis got the penguins’ attention with a dramatic opening speech, Buddy stepped forward to share what the team had learned from the seagull and their vision for the future. 

By the end of the presentation, about a third of the colony was enthusiastic about the team’s vision for the future, while roughly 10% were completely opposed to it. The rest ranged from open-minded to skeptical about the plan.

As far as Louis was concerned, that was an excellent outcome for their first presentation.

Ideas tend to spread through populations in a bell curve, sometimes known as the Idea Diffusion Curve. The theory behind the Curve is that a small percentage of the population—the Innovators and the Early Adopters—should be the actual target of any marketing that you do, because they’ll be the ones to spread your new idea or product to everyone else through word of mouth and social media. Therefore, having a third of the colony buying into their plan to migrate is a great start for the team. Presumably, those penguins are the Innovators and Early Adopters; the ones who will (with a bit of help from the team) get the rest of the colony onboard. 

The Small Conversations

After the big speech, the team’s next step was to increase support and excitement for their vision by having conversations with those penguins who were confused or skeptical about it. 

They used two different strategies to keep spreading the word:

  1. Buddy and some of his friends made “talking circles,” where small groups of penguins would come together to discuss the situation with Louis, Alice, or Fred. The talking circles helped to clear up the penguins’ confusion about the situation. 
  2. The team reached out to some of the younger penguins to make posters. The posters featured catchy art and slogans to increase penguins’ enthusiasm for leaving the iceberg. 
The Rule of 7 is a marketing theory stating that a customer has to see ads for your business an average of seven times before buying your product. The team’s posters—and, to a lesser extent, their conversation circles—ensure that the other penguins are seeing their “product” (in other words, the plan to move to a new iceberg) frequently enough that many of them will start buying into it. 
How to Spread Ideas of Change in an Organization

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of John P. Kotter and Holger Rathgeber's "Our Iceberg Is Melting" at Shortform.

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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