What Penguins Can Teach Us About Creating A Successful New Year

“Once upon a time a colony of penguins was living in the frozen Antarctic on an iceberg near what we call today Cape Washington…”

So begins John P. Kotter‘s classic organisational-change fable, ‘Our Iceberg is Melting‘, in which the Emperor penguins Fred, Alice, Louis, Buddy, the Professor, and No-No (we all know that guy, right?) must confront the challenge they are facing, and learn to successfully change as a result.

Widely considered to be THE change guru in the world today, Kotter is perhaps most famous for his eight step process for leading change, which he first put forth in his classic book, ‘Leading Change’. In ‘Our Iceberg is Melting’, Kotter took those same eight steps and placed them in the context of a simple story, to great effect – it, too, became an instant classic, selling more than a million copies over the last decade.

Businesses and organisations around the world have utilised the principles modelled by Kotter’s plucky penguins in order to execute change and reach their goals, and so too can we, as we face a New Year and all that we might hope to achieve within it.

Step 1 – Create a sense of urgency

One of the reasons we naturally make New Year Resolutions is that the New Year itself functions as a kind of psychological fresh start. The mindset of  ‘starting off on the right foot’ creates its own internal sense of urgency to start implementing changes or pursuing goals now, rather than at an arbitrary later time.

To leverage this even further, we can create a stronger sense of urgency by considering the following questions about the kind of change we want to implement, whether that is in our health, our work, our finances, our relationships or any other area of life:

  • If I don’t make this change or pursue this goal, what will be the result at the end of this year? In five years? In ten years?
  • What impact will that have on how I feel about myself and my life?
  • How will that impact those around me?
  • What opportunities might be lost as a result?

Considering the impact of not taking action now can help us solidify a sense of urgency for the changes that need to be implemented in our lives this year.

Action Step: Ask yourself what is at stake if you never start making progress towards your goals


Step 2 – Build a guiding coalition

Having a team around you can make all the difference in the world when you come up against unexpected challenges, or hit a low patch of motivation, or simply aren’t sure what the best next step is. As you move beyond the New Year season and get into the thickets of the year, who are those people who will be able to help keep your eye on the prize?

Even if the area you want to see change is something entirely individual, you can still build in the benefits of creating a guiding coalition. For instance, ways you can do this include:

  • Learning from experts on the topic or practice in question, through podcasts, articles or books.
  • Telling those closest to you what you are focusing on, and checking in with them about it on a regular basis, asking them for what will be most helpful, whether that is encouragement, accountability or input (or perhaps all three).
  • Identify someone in your circles who has a lot of experience and wisdom in the area in question, and ask if you could take them out for coffee or lunch and seek their input.

Action Step: Consider who can encourage, challenge or provide input into your goals


Step 3 – Form strategic vision and initiatives

Perhaps you’ve already crafted your goals and tactics for the new year. If you haven’t, I would highly encourage you to take some time to reflect on the year just gone, and the new year ahead, and to identify and articulate your strategies, goals and plans as you move forward.

The simple act of writing down goals increases the likelihood that we will achieve them, so why wouldn’t we want to shift the odds in our favour!

If you don’t already have a system, I recommend the free downloadable new year planner from psychologist Alison Hill at Pragmatic Thinking (I wrote about one aspect of going through her planner in this post).

Action Step: Work though a planning process for the coming year – write down your goals, and the plans you will implement to make progress towards them



Step 4 – Enlist a volunteer army

As with Step 2, it may not seem at first like a natural step to involve others in helping to reach your goals and implement changes in your own life. However, it is worth considering how the collective actions of others can provide additional energy and momentum in moving forward into the new year and towards your goals. This may take a variety of shapes, such as:

  • Seeing if someone (or more than one someone) in your house would be interesting in trying certain healthy eating changes together with you.
  • Creating a message thread with some friends to each share what you are grateful for each day.
  • Starting a book club or a writer’s group.
  • Experimenting with certain budget goals together with friends, and getting creative about saving money together by planning shared free or low-cost activists.
  • Joining a running club or finding an exercise buddy.

If it is a less individual, more external goal you are trying to achieve – like doing something that will help others – then there is even more reason again to share your vision and heart with others, and see who is willing to come alongside and be part of the solution.

Action Step: Consider how you can involve others in moving towards your goals or implementing changes


Step 5 – Enable action by removing barriers

What are the threats to the achievement of this goal or the implementation of this change? Why hasn’t it been done already? What has gotten in your way in the past?

Some barriers may be internal – fear, procrastination, uncertainty about our own ability, lack of confidence, etc.

Some barriers may be external – lack of resources, push-back from others, existing responsibilities, etc.

Once you have identified the key barriers affecting your ability to move forward into the new year, there are a few approaches you can take:

  • Remove the barrier – This obviously doesn’t work for all obstacles, but in some cases, it really is that simple.  If the barrier is your procrastination, sometimes setting up a clear schedule with strong accountability systems will remove the issue.
  • Consider Alternatives – Sometimes we need to get creative in removing obstacles. If you are a runner, but often get home too late to go for a run, can you look at other ways to exercise? Could you do circuit training in your house, or join a gym, or do youtube yoga lessons?
  • Reprioritise – If you don’t have enough resource, sometimes simply making some radical readjustments to the budget will get you there. If the issue is not having enough time, sometimes you may be required to set aside some existing commitments where possible. If you are getting pushback from others, are there other issues that are less important to your goals where you can compromise in order to get buy-in from them on this matter?
  • Enlist Others – See points #2 and #4. Sometimes the input or contribution of others can remove the barriers of our own lack of confidence or expertise.
  • Break it Down – Sometimes it can simply be a matter of chipping away at what feels like a huge barrier by breaking things down to the one next step that is possible.

Action Step: Identify the key barriers you are facing in relation to your goals, and brainstorm ways to remove or address them and to empower yourself to act


Step 6 – Generate short term wins

This is absolutely critical for keeping up your motivation throughout the year as you pursue your goals! If your goal is to go from couch-bound to marathon-runner, but you don’t celebrate any wins until you complete that final marathon, you are likely to feel a bit overwhelmed and get discourage along the way! However, if you identify smaller steps along the way that provide a sense of forward movement, and then celebrate them once you get there, you help create a sense of confidence in your own ability to grow and change, and leverage the principle of success breeding success.

Tracking systems for many types of goals can play a valuable role in helping facilitate the identification and celebration of short terms wins!

Action Steps:

  • Identify a mini goal on the way to your major goal
  • Focus on getting to that point as soon as possible (and track progress, if relevant)
  • Celebrate achieving that goal in a way that is meaningful for you (and isn’t at odds with your goal itself)


Step 7 – Sustain acceleration

As you start to make some progress in knowing where you are headed, how you’re going to get there, and creating progress, remember to continue to embed the goals and changes within your life not just now, in the New Year season, but as you progress over the coming months. Consider what further tweaks to your lifestyle might strengthen your ability to pursue your goals. Seek out fresh inspiration and encouragement.

  • Are there things that take up time and energy for you that aren’t as important are now a bit redundant or could be given lower priority?
  • What have you learnt that you could use to tweak your original plans?
  • Would sharing your journey with others give you more motivation?
  • Would starting or tweaking a tracking system provide you with greater clarity about your ongoing progress?
  • Could you introduce new excitement and interest by providing yourself with short-term themes on the way to your goal?

Action Step: Regularly re-evaluate your planning and progress and adapt as necessary


Step 8 – Institute change

Even Kotter himself recognises that different context require different approaches to implementing change – sometimes you take different steps in a linear order, and sometimes you do them all simultaneously whilst iterating and tweaking as you go. In fact one of his more recent books, ‘Accelerate‘, lays out a version of the eight-steps that focus on quick, agile change implementation.

Whatever the approach you take, the important thing is, as the excellent Steven Pressfield puts it in his book of the same name, to simply ‘do the work’. Make the changes. Implement the steps. Get up, and do the thing, and then do it again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. You absolutely, positively can change.