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Home Change Management Who Moved My Cheese? ~title of a 1998 business fable by Dr. Spencer Johnson

Who Moved My Cheese? ~title of a 1998 business fable by Dr. Spencer Johnson

Jeff Vogelsang, Managing Partner of Promontory Point Partners, is a turnaround specialist.  We heard him speak to a group of CEOs wherein he described the typical interaction between himself and the CEO of a company that requires his turnaround help.  Vogelsang said that the CEO will “whine” (his word, not ours) to him that the company’s problems are due to competition from China, or the high cost of energy, or the economy.”  To which Vogelsang responds, “No!  The problem is not the Chinese or the cost of energy or the economy . . .  it’s you.  The Chinese, the cost of energy, and the economy are just the market conditions you have to deal with, but if you can’t (or won’t) deal with those conditions, then step aside and let someone else do it.”  In these tough times of a pandemic, a battered economy, and social unrest, it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves that even though these are external problems that we had no hand in creating, we must still find ways to deal with them.  For more on this, please continue reading below.

“Who Moved My Cheese?”   ~ title of a 1998 business fable by Dr. Spencer Johnson

In Johnson’s book, “cheese” could be a metaphor for all sorts of different things . . . health, social status, financial success, or lifetime goals . . . but for this purpose, the “cheese” is our company’s market, and something has happened to change it.  Maybe a new, large competitor has entered our market, or perhaps a so-called “disruptive” technology is threatening our product or service.  Whatever the cause, our market has changed (our “cheese” has been moved).  So what should we do?  We can:

  1. Quit.  Our cheese has been moved (through no fault of our own, incidentally) so we’re now totally screwed.  There’s nothing we can do. We should just pack up and go home. (Not recommended)
  2. Wait.  Our cheese has served us so well and for so long, surely it will come back.  It has to.  So let’s just be patient, don’t do anything rash, and eventually everything will return to normal.  (Not recommended)
  3. Find new cheese.  Our cheese had gotten old and tired, so let’s go out and find new cheese that is more robust and more exciting, and has the potential to carry us into the future.

Hopefully, you won’t throw in the towel (as in #1), and you won’t bet everything on the chance that somehow things will get back to the way they were (as in #2).  The only real option we’ve got is #3.

Peter Schutz, who was President of Porsche from 1981 to 1987, was also a keynote speaker and business management consultant.  One of his oft-repeated axioms was, “If there is no change, there’s no need to manage.”  If those of us in management just didn’t show up for work one day, what would our people do?  Most likely, they’d just keep doing whatever they we’re doing the previous day.  And for as long as the managers would stay away, their people would just continue doing what they have always done and what they know how to do.  And everything would actually work pretty well that way.  But what if something changes and suddenly the way we’ve always done things doesn’t work anymore?  What then?  That’s when those of us in management need to earn our keep.  Truth be told, we’ve got pretty cushy jobs when there are no significant market upheavals or interruptions to worry about.  It’s only when significant change in our marketplace causes confusion and chaos that our company actually gets its money’s worth from us.

So what’s the point of all this?

We’re now faced with an unprecedented confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, a destabilized economy, and the worst social unrest we’ve experienced in the last 50 years.  As a result, our companies need strong leadership from us as never before.

  • Our employees need to understand that many companies won’t survive.  The weak ones will dither about what to do until it’s too late.  Let your employees know that we don’t intend to be one of those, that we’re committed to being a survivor.  However, we need to act decisively and we need to act now. 
  • Protecting the status quo is not an option.  Things are going to change and we’ve got to change with them.  Our employees also need to understand that waiting around for things to settle down and get back to normal is a fool’s errand.  That’s not going to happen.  And some changes we make in order to survive may become permanent.
  • We’re all in this together . . . owners, managers, and employees alike.  It’s one of those “all hands on deck” moments.  It would be nice if we could somehow shield our employees from whatever pain, suffering, or inconvenience the coming changes may bring, but we can’t.  It’s called “shared fate.”

As with all leadership initiatives, the goal here is to gain the cooperation and support of our workforce, not because they have to, but because they want to.  We want their “buy in.”  We want them to accept the notion that this is not just a management problem . . . it’s everyone’s problem.  Spectators are not allowed.  We need participants who will give us their energy, commitment, and best thinking.  Unfortunately, we won’t get that from everyone.  Inevitably, some employees will have a sense of entitlement and will resist any change that might inconvenience their normal routines.  In the long run, those are the folks that you probably don’t want on your team.

The good news is that times like these challenge us and test us.  We’ll learn if our management team has the leadership skills we believe it does.  We’ll also learn if the concepts of teamwork are alive and well within our organization.  And when we emerge from all this turmoil, all of us   . . . managers and employees alike . . . will experience the sense of accomplishment and achievement that only comes to winners.

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