How a motivational fable of mice and men can help your business better manage change

Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black is Managing Director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to www.kara.ie

I was tidying up recently and came across Who Moved My Cheese?, a book by Dr Spencer Johnson, who also co-wrote The One-Minute Manager with Kenneth Blanchard. Who Moved My Cheese? was very successful in the late 1990s, but it’s one I had forgotten about it.

It’s a powerful allegorical tale that is probably even more relevant today in this fast-changing world we live in.

The tale central to Who Moved My Cheese? goes like this:

Once upon a time there lived two mice named ‘Sniffy’ and ‘Scurry’, who shared their world with two small humans named ‘Hem’ and ‘Haw’. Their world was a maze, full of complex twists and turns – and piles of cheese.

For the mice with uncomplicated brains, the cheese simply represented a way of satisfying their hunger.

For Hem and Haw, the cheese represented all that humans desire such as health, wealth, relationships, career, position, material things, lifestyle or whatever they believed would make them happy.

One day, they all set out to find new cheese. Having found a big pile, Sniffy and Scurry in particular never took it for granted. They dashed out of their homes early each day and followed their instincts to sniff out the route and scurry to it without delay.

Hem and Haw, on the other hand, having discovered the same pile of cheese, soon settled into a routine.

As the days rolled on, they woke up a little later each day and moved a bit more slowly. They developed new norms and habits, becoming quite comfortable and complacent. They never doubted that the cheese would be where it was the day before, assuming it would always be there.

One day when Sniffy and Scurry arrived, the cheese was all gone. They weren’t surprised, as in previous days they had noticed the pile getting old, mouldy and reducing in size. They reacted immediately, and went searching for more cheese.

Hem and Haw arrived later that morning and were shocked to find no cheese.

They were furious, as all their plans were built around having an endless supply. But rather than go and search for new cheese, they continued to hem and haw and instead focused their energy on a useless quest to get to the bottom of ‘who moved my cheese’.

They wouldn’t look elsewhere for new cheese as they were afraid of change.

They also had a sense of entitlement and developed a victim mentality which spiralled negatively downwards, causing them stress and ill-health.

They started to work longer hours trying to figure out what happened. They were doing the same thing over and over, yet they expected a different result.

Although it was difficult, Haw eventually came around and laughed at his own silliness. He tried to encourage Hem to join him in following the mice and searching for new cheese. But Hem was steadfast and his resistance held them both back at first.

When Haw realised this, he recognised that for his own welfare, he needed to break away from Hem and move on without him.

On this new journey, Haw encountered many obstacles along the way but built his confidence as he learned to overcome them.

He realised that he could actually cope better than he expected. It wasn’t that bad after all. At first he came across scraps of new cheese and then he found the most wonderful pile of new cheese, with Sniffy and Scruffy already enjoying it. He went back and managed to convince a very distraught Haw to join him.

As time went on and having learned a significant lesson, Haw checked the new pile of cheese every day.

He knew that change was inevitable and coping with that was up to him alone.

THE LESSONS IN THIS TALE

• Change happens, they keep moving the cheese! We’re living in a world where the pace, volume and complexity of change is increasing exponentially and there’s no going back to the way it once was.

• Change can be tough but imagine what you could do if you weren’t afraid of change?

• When you stop being afraid, you start to feel good. Reach out and seek help in understanding why the cheese is moving and will continue to do so.

• When you change what you believe you change what you do. Change readiness requires a positive mindset. Negativity and resistance is futile.

• Smell the cheese often, monitor it so you’ll know in good time when it’s getting old and reducing in size. Anticipate change and get ready for the cheese to move.

• When you imagine yourself enjoying the new cheese, it will lead you to it.

• Adapt to change quickly. The quicker you let go of the old cheese the sooner you’ll enjoy the new one. A prolonged post-mortem for what was good about the past will prevent you from embracing the new.

• Enjoy change. Savour the adventure and enjoy the taste of the new cheese.

• Even after embracing the new cheese, be ready for even more change. They will never stop moving the cheese.

THE LAST WORD

Just like me, I’m sure that each time you re-read this story of Hem and Haw , you’ll spot something new. I’ll also bet that as you read this, some of your friends or colleagues will come to mind. But stand back and consider which character you relate most to. Are you a Sniffy or Scurry that just gets on with a new reality of continuous change? Or are you more like Hem or Haw that chooses not to see the writing on the wall?

I’m collecting stories and case studies on change and culture for my next book. Drop me a note at [email protected] if you’d like to share your ‘culture change’ challenge.

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