Monday Mornings with Madison

Accept Change and Adapt in Uncertain Times

Word Count: 1,607
Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

Who Moved My Cheese?

We are living in a time of great uncertainty and massive disruption.  As Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain so aptly put it in her address to the British people last month, “I am speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time.   A time of disruption…  A disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all.”  It is true, and she was right to add that this too shall pass.  As she put it, “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”

However, it is the “we may have more still to endure” part of her speech that may have some quaking in their boots.  How much more is there to endure?  When will this end?  How will we survive in the meantime?   Some think the right thing to do is hunker down and wait it out.  Some can afford that.  But, for many others, that could mean economic hardship or even financial ruin.  What is the right answer?

For some insights in how to deal with massive disruption and change, it might help to revisit an old business book published almost 22 years ago titled “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson, Ph.D.  In the world of business books, the “Cheese” stands alone.

In just 60 pages, Johnson’s little fable captured the imagination of a whole generation of managers.  But exactly what caused “Who Moved My Cheese?” to become such a huge hit remains a mystery.  The book’s phenomenal success exceeded the expectations of almost everyone involved with its publishing at the beginning.  Admittedly, the title sounded silly, and years had passed since Johnson had co-written “The One Minute Manager” – a huge success — with Kenneth Blanchard. So when early sales of “Who Moved My Cheese?” languished, it was not such a big surprise.

The shock came when it started selling several months later.  Orders started pouring in.  Fortune magazine reported that executives at Procter & Gamble, General Electric and Hewlett-Packard were recommending the book. Southwest Airlines ordered copies for all its employees. Johnson was on the road, delivering motivational and management talks; word of mouth began to spread.  It became a sensation and has remained a “must read” book for management students and business execs for the last two decades.

What to do when disruption hits?

Johnson tells the story of four characters who ran through a Maze looking for cheese to nourish them and make them happy.  Sniff and Scurry are mice.  Hem and Haw are little people.   The maze is a metaphor of life, and the cheese is a metaphor of what we really want in life.

Every day, Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw find their prize – their delicious cheese — in a corridor called “Cheese Station C” in the maze.   At Station C, there was always an abundance of cheese.  Suddenly, one morning, the cheese wasn’t there.  The mice were perplexed.  Soon they realized the cheese wasn’t coming back to that spot.  Sniff and Scurry, immediately head off to find more cheese elsewhere.  But Hem and Haw, were devastated. They counted on the cheese supply being constant, and were unprepared for that turn of events. “Who moved my Cheese?” Hem hollered.  Hem and Haw — affected by their lack of cheese — blame each other for their problem.

In time, while Hem continues to whine that he can’t have his whey, Haw comes to the realization that he’s got to change. While he wasn’t as quick as Sniff and Scurry to accept the reality of the present situation, he does finally see the futility of wallowing and lamenting the loss.  If he hopes to survive, he must let go of the past and discover a new place to get his cheese.  But he is still fearful of his trek.  So Haw jots “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?” on the wall.  After thinking about that, he decides to begin his venture. Haw enters the maze, but not before chiseling “If You Do Not Change, You Can Become Extinct” on the wall of Cheese Station C for Hem to ponder. Still plagued with worry that he may have waited too long to begin his search, Haw starts down the path and soon finds some bits of cheese that nourish him and he is able to continue his search.

Hem, however, refused to go with Haw.  He was comforted by his old routine and frightened of the unknown. He knocked the idea of going in search of new cheese.  While Haw moved on, Hem was left behind — paralyzed by fear.  Meanwhile, Sniff and Scurry had found “Cheese Station N” that had an abundance of new cheese.

After traveling through the maze a while, Haw realized that the cheese has not suddenly vanished, but had dwindled from continual eating.  After a stop at an empty cheese station, Haw began to worrying about the unknown again. Brushing aside his fears, Haw’s new mindset allows him to again enjoy life. He has even begun to smile again! He realizes that “When you move beyond your fear, you feel free.” After another empty cheese station, Haw decides to go back for Hem with the few bits of new cheese he has managed to find.

Uncompromising, Hem refused the new cheese.  Disappointed with Hem but armed with the knowledge learned along the way, Haw headed back into the maze. Traveling further into the maze – spurred by bits of new cheese here and there — Haw left a trail of writings on the walls along the way.  The messages clarified his own thinking and they were meant to provide hope for Hem if he should find them during his search for new cheese.

Still traveling, Haw one day finally reached Cheese Station N, abundant with cheese, including some varieties that were strange to him.  He realized he had found what he was looking for.  After eating, Haw reflected on his experience.  He considered returning to see his old friend Hem but decided to let him find his own way.

Finding the largest wall in Cheese Station N, Haw wrote these words of advice:

  • Change happens.
  • They keep moving the cheese.
  • Anticipate change.
  • Get ready for the cheese to move again.
  • Monitor change.
  • Smell the cheese often so you know when it is getting old.
  • Adapt to change quickly.
  • The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy new cheese.
  • Change.
  • Move with the cheese.
  • Enjoy change!
  • Savor the adventure and enjoy the taste of new cheese!
  • Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again.

Cautious from past experience, Haw began inspecting Cheese Station N daily and explored different parts of the maze regularly to prevent complacency from setting in.  The tale ends with Haw hearing movement in the maze and realizing someone was approaching the station. Haw hoped it was his friend Hem, who had found the way.

Here are a few lessons that can be gleaned from this simple book for these complex times.

Lesson 1.  Get moving!

Strategizing doesn’t always help deliver better results.  In fact, often it just confuses people.  In most cases, it is better get moving, think less and act more.  Businesses paralyzed by the fallout from the pandemic need to consider what they can do to provide value and shift to needed services.

Lesson 2. Always be grateful.

Before the pandemic, people had become used to a 3.5% unemployment rate and were complacent to improve skills and companies were happy to keep delivering the same services regardless of whether there were new advances that could be implemented to benefit customers and the company.  In fact, people became dependent on the status quo and took it for granted.  Today, companies and employees should be grateful for the work, and always remain appreciative of abundance, yet not become overly dependent on nothing.

Lesson 3.  Change is inevitable.

Nothing stays the same.  Ignoring problems and innovations can lead to disaster.   Change happens.  Embrace it.  Enjoy it.  Look forward to it.  The sooner that happens, the easier and better things will be.  As the book explains, those who do not change become extinct.

Lesson 4.  Be ready for and open to change.

When things change, people are shocked.  But often we fail to see changes on the horizon.  When there are clear signs of a growing problem, instead of ignoring the signs and clinging to the status quo, it is critically important to act and adjust.  Always look for signs of change.

Lesson 5.  Keep moving toward progress.

Not accept the new reality and clinging to the past just makes things worse.  It is important to look toward the future, and let go of the past.

Lesson 6. Face fears.

Comfort and fear of the unknown are often paralyzing.  The more one wallows in fear, the worse things will get.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Asking “what would I do if I wasn’t afraid” opens the door to possibilities.  Then, only by facing fears are we free to move on, find opportunities and make new discoveries.  Move toward fear and the death of fear is certain.

The key to dealing with uncertainty is to get moving.  Accept that change is ahead.  Then act. Stop clinging to old ways and accept reality.  Envision a new reality and take steps to make that happen.  Now is a time for boldness and courage.  Press on.

Quote of the Week

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along’.” Eleanor Roosevelt


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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