At some point in our lifetime, we will come across at least one situation that will create a change that needs to be faced head on and conquered so that we can move on. This change can happen in our workplace or at home or even compel us to bravely face the domino effect of a policy decision in our organization. How we handle this change determines whether moving cheese has a positive or adverse effect on our careers and quest for life balance.
The Cheese in question is a metaphor for what you want in life – money, health, a great job, rising to the top of your profession, a loving relationship, a happy family life etc and was first mentioned in the book “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson, M.D, a fable on how we adapt to change.
I purchased this short book in 2001 at a bookshop at the Mumbai Departure Terminal while waiting to catch a flight back to New Delhi having spent 2 days working on an important part of a project where my employer was buying out the share of our Joint Venture partner that would enable forward movement in the project. The trip was even more significant because after a 2 year standoff, successful financial close meant our entire department would avoid being made redundant.
I wanted a short read for the two and a half hour flight and bought the book on the recommendation of the bookshop owner. Little did I know that this purchase would mark the beginning of a new journey or how it would change my perspective on what cheese really meant to me. For now, know that I loved the book so much that it became my favorite book to gift to my colleagues and quotes that I cherish as much those from Dr. Seuss.
Understanding Cheese and Change – the background
The book, Who Moved My Cheese, is a fable with 4 characters – 2 mice and 2 little people (Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw) who live in a “maze” in constant search for “cheese” and how they react to and deal with unexpected change.
The maze is a metaphor for where we spend our time looking for what we want (within our workplace, outside it, in society, community at home etc).
The main characters react to change based on their personalities and attitude and learn valuable lessons along the way.
Sniff- sniffs out change early
Scurry- scurries into action
The Little People
HEM- Denies and resists change through fear
HAW- learns to adapt when he can see something better
Every day these characters run through a maze seeking special cheese based on their level of brain power and what they believe will make them happy finding their desired cheese based on their abilities. The mice use trial and error to navigate the maze and often go off in the wrong direction or get lost but after a while remember which corridors are empty and find their way back to cheese.
The Little People also learn from past experiences and do well but there are times when their beliefs and emotions get in the way which paralyses them from taking a simple action that can help get them out of their rut.
All is well until one fine day, the Cheese that they enjoy is depleted and that is where the story of handling change begins.
The Mice had been keeping track of the Cheese levels and when it finally disappeared, they instinctively knew what they had to do and just got on with the search to find new cheese and ultimately succeeded. They adapted.
Hem and Haw were not prepared and went into complaining mode, procrastinating from taking action and reminisced about the good old days. Many of us do this when we are attached to something and cling to it blind to the reality that things are changing and we need to adapt to change or move on.
Haw finally gets his act together and learns to adapt and enjoy change while Hem has to learn the painful lesson that he needs to change with changing time because the constants are in reality variable.
Lessons from Real Life People
The beauty of the story lies in the fact that there is a bit of Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw in all of us.
Nobody likes change but that is something that happens all the time. The key differentiation is how alert we are to change and how we tackle it.
Coming back to my own story, the buyout was a success and our jobs were safe. Everyone went about their work, putting in crazy hours because we were motivated thinking that there was an abundance of cheese that was worth compromising other areas of our life. We were complacent.
The cheese platter fell with a resounding sound a year later when top management decided that the project was not viable and no longer a part of their core vision. The fate of a close knit team of more than a dozen professionals including 4 in top management became uncertain. What made it worse was that the economy was heading into recession and no one would have blamed us for any hemming and hawing.
Even those who were privy to confidential information were caught unaware in a matter of 24 hours. They say hindsight is 20:20 vision and suddenly the resignation of a few of the junior staff in the team who were considered no more than flies on the wall a few months before we were hit with the bad news started to sound like Sniff and Scurry.
They had run off looking for new cheese before the old cheese got stale. Perhaps their survival skills were strong enough to have sensed that the buyout may not lead to project completion and decided to cut their losses in advance.
Those of us who could be absorbed into other departments jumped at the opportunity because cheese meant job security.
Unfortunately, some of us were made redundant and that is where the Hem and Haw survival skills came in. Some middle management members made a graceful exit that included a farewell party after negotiating generous redundancy settlements while others clung on in the hope that a miracle would take place in the form of new cheese.
It took time to wind down the department and while half the department moved on in search of new cheese, some of the senior most management had a tough time letting go of the cheese which had prestige and an enviable paycheck that was no longer there.
There are many lessons that the book taught me but key takeaways that became apparent during the pink slip situation hold for any kind of change.
- Change is scary.
- You need to be alert to signs of change but not get sucked into the rumor mill.
- The only thing in life you can be sure of is change- and sometimes it will be radical
- You should not take success for granted or become complacent but be willing to take calculated risks/move with the times loose the cheese.
- The key to survival is to be flexible, agile and responsive.
- Our view of life and future possibilities can be affected by our past experience. If you sense that you have a limiting belief, do something about it to make your actions. productive and constructive, not run around doing the same ineffective chasing of your tail.
- Each person has different motivations/reasons for resisting and will need to be treated differently.
- Recognize what stage people are at (shock acceptance denial etc) and help people move through it.
- Train develop support and encourage, involve people in change
- People need to be encouraged to explore their own attitudes and develop coping strategies.
Can your cheese include work life balance?
The answer is a resounding yes. The event that I spoke about took place more than a decade ago and change was cathartic for many of my colleagues because redundancy in white collar professional jobs was unheard of in India at the time. The concept of redundancy counseling did not exist nor was there a scheme to help middle to senior career professionals find new jobs. We did not know how to find new cheese or even dream of new cheese.
Things were a little better for me having worked abroad and having previously experienced redundancy in the post Gulf War period so I knew that even though I was caught unawares, there were ways to deal with the situation and the first step was to negotiate a good settlement package while my boss still had the power to help me and get out of an environment which was going to get toxic as the deadline to close the department approached. I moved on.
Those were difficult times because of the recession and while it was challenging to get a new job immediately, I chose to put some other matters in place which had been neglected due to my long working hours, learned how to make candles and ventured into writing stories for children which were published in 2 leading Indian children’s’ magazines. I eventually did land a wonderful job that gave me a career and work life balance but I had learned the lesson that I could create my own cheese. The foundations for becoming the Karmic Ally Coach were being laid even though it would be a few good years before the final transformation of my cheese.
Others adopted a different approach which included keeping their heads down and finding new cheese, even if it meant accepting inferior cheese.
The colleagues who could not see beyond the vanished cheese had it bad and challenged the organization. They were literally thrown out of the maze with no cheese as a parting gift.
A decade later, I am still in touch with quite a few of my colleagues and their cheese story which was driven by uncertainty and fear has changed. Many have moved onto new mazes or created their own maze which has elements of a life outside of the organization with more balance and perspective.
What we have learned about cheese is that there is more to simply towing the party line at work and chasing cheese that the organization keeps moving and putting in endless hours because the cheese bait demands it of us putting our health and work life balance in jeopardy.
We no longer accept our fate but instead in the years that have followed, we have broken the rules, challenged the limitations and constraints that once bound us to blind alley cheese chases and created our own reality. An important point that Professor Deepak Malhotra, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author raises in his book I Moved Your Cheese.
We have discovered that what drives us is not necessarily having cheese but a plate of cheese that inspires us to be creative and be different. The quest for self-made cheese has found expression in various forms in new organizations where as leaders we are respected for guiding others to self-actualizing cheese while helping the organization to grow. We are thriving.
While I still believe that my former employer could have handled the situation better and not expected its employees to blindly accept a life and career affecting change without challenging it, I also believe that the onus to create cheese that offers us the best of both worlds depends upon us.
To create the cheese of your choice, there are certain questions that you need to ask yourself which I detail in my self-study course Life Focus in 7 Days and the actions that you need to take to create that life and a cheese that will stand the test of time.
It requires looking at each aspect of your life and considering whether you are happy with it and what needs to change. Once you know the core ingredients of your cheese, the next step is to create it and that is one thing that only you can do whether supported by a coach, mentor or on your own.
Which cheese are you running after? Does it satisfy you or do you know deep in your heart that there is a better cheese out there? Do you dare to create your own cheese?
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