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I normally avoid reading management books which are prescriptive. I like the ones which are classics or those which are based on events and incidents or are about people. Because most of the time, I feel that prescriptive books come out with solutions which use a lot of jargon and which look good on paper, but which were not implementable in the complex real-world. Sometimes some of these books describe a management fad which will change when the fashion changes next year.  The management books I have liked are memoirs or experiences of people – like ‘Liar’s Poker’ by Michael Lewis (insightful description of investment banking from the inside), ‘The Nudist on the late shift’ by Po Bronson (wonderful book about the dot com revolution). Or are about major events – like ‘When genius failed – the rise and fall of Long Term Capital Management’ by Roger Lowenstein (an insightful book on how derivatives can bring a company or an economy down if used recklessly). There is also a prescriptive kind of management book that I have liked – ‘The McKinsey Way’ by Ethan M. Rasiel. It talks about how engagements are handled at McKinsey, and it is a good read and gives lots of good suggestions on how to manage projects and engagements. The book about to be reviewed – ‘Our Iceberg is Melting’ – can also be called a management book. We can say it is a management book written in story form. It follows in the tradition of Spencer Johnson books by describing a management problem in story form and also giving a prescriptive solution based on a particular model in story form. Spencer Johnson does it wonderfully in his books like ‘The One Minute Manager’ (jointly written with Kenneth Blanchard), ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ and ‘The Present’. The present book ‘Our Iceberg Is Melting’ by John Kotter continues the same tradition.

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A little bit about the authors. John Kotter was a professor at Harvard Business School and is an expert in Change Management. He has written many books on Change Management which are critically acclaimed. Holger Rathgeber is a global manager who has used Kotter’s books and customized them into fables and used them for training programmes in Change Management in his own company. Both the authors have collaborated on this book – Kotter bringing his expertise in Change Management and Rathgeber bringing his experience in simplifying complex Change Management concepts into simplified fables and using them to train employees on the same.

Now about the book. It is a story about a penguin colony which lives in Antartica. One of the members of the colony discovers that the iceberg on which they are living is melting and if they don’t do something about it, the colony might be in trouble. So the penguin goes to one of the members of the leadership council and describes the problem. How the penguin colony confront the problem, how they convince the doubters that there is a problem, how they go about trying to find a solution to the solution and in the process ask some fundamental questions about themselves and their identity form the rest of the story. It is a beautiful fable and as one reads on, one can identify with some of the penguins. Especially one can identify some of the doubters who are not able to see the problem inspite of the overwhelming evidence, with real-world people. Also one could identify others who block new initiatives because it affects their personal interest, with real-world managers. While describing the fable and how the penguins handle the problem, the book also describes the 8-step process proposed by Kotter to handle Change Management issues and how the penguins use the same unwittingly to solve the problem they are facing. From that perspective, the book is a little bit prescriptive. The core is the 8-step process and the fable is woven around it. This is a little bit different from the Spencer Johnson books where the fable comes first and the solution / model comes out naturally from the story.

The book has many insightful passages on how team work can solve complex problems :

Penguins love squid, those sea creatures that come in sizes ranging from as large as a bus – like Jules Verne’s monster in 20,000 leagues under the Sea – to smaller than a mouse. But the tiny squid so liked by the penguins are tricky little devils. They will shoot a very unappealing jet of black ink at a predator and then zoom away. So in a one squid versus one penguin matchup, the squid can easily win. Penguins, having discovered this problem many, many years ago, had found a solution : hunt squid in groups.

On how asking the right questions to ourselves makes us find out who we really are :

Louis told the crowd with conviction ,”This iceberg is not who we are. It is only where we now live.”

On how a community acts when there is a problem :

Social pressure works as well in penguin colonies as in human colonies.

If you like fable-based management books, you will find ‘Our Iceberg Is Melting’ quite insightful and a good read. Even if you don’t agree with Kotter’s 8-step process, the penguin story is still good and the pictures in the book are beautiful.

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