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Who Moved My Cheese: Five Change Management Lessons (and One Unanswered Question)

NOTE: With tens of thousands of readers, this has been my most popular article over the years. I recently re-read it, and it's just as relevant today as it was then. Change is everywhere and people are tired. Having a strong Change Management approach is more important than ever to motivating people to move forward toward the "new cheese".


As I read through Dr. Spencer Johnson's book, Who Moved My Cheese?, (admittedly, I'm a bit behind on my reading list) I understood why people either seem to love it or hate it. Depending on your reasons for picking up this book, it can hold all of the answers you're looking for, or it can seem as if it doesn't address any of your questions. Today I want to look at how we can take some of the concepts in Who Moved My Cheese? and apply them in a practical manner to the development and execution of a Change Management program in a corporate setting. Below are five key lessons we can take away from the book, as well as a response to the one major question Dr. Johnson left unanswered. Know your Stakeholders Who Moved My Cheese? focuses on four main characters. There are two mice, Sniff and Scurry. "Sniff would smell out the general direction of the cheese...and Scurry would race ahead." (p. 27) There were also two littlepeople. Haw eventually learns to move with the cheese, while Hem remains locked in the old way of doing things, waiting fruitlessly for his cheese to be returned to him. While these four characters in no way illustrate the full range of "change personalities" you will meet during a corporate change, they do highlight the fact that in order to build a successful Change Management program, you have to know and understand your stakeholders. The methods that will help a "Haw" adopt a change are very different from the methods that will help a "Hem" make the adjustment. If you walk blindly onto a project and put together a Change program based solely on a standard methodology or research, without first analyzing the personalities of your stakeholders, you are likely to find that your Change Management activities only meet the needs of a small portion of your audience. If this happens, many people will never move on to the "New Cheese" that awaits them at the end of the project. Burn the Platform Although the impending loss of cheese was described as a gradual change in the book, only two of the characters realized it was coming, and none of them made a change until they considered it absolutely necessary. This is why, in Change Management books and methodologies, you'll often hear the term "Burning Platform." The burning platform provides the reason why the change is necessary. As Who Moved My Cheese? illustrates, it's important to burn the platform early and mercilessly. Most people will not change unless the need to change is compelling and imminent. Consider these two examples that could be used for the same IT system implementation:

  1. We need to change our sales systems because IT says the new system is better.

  2. We need to change our sales systems because our current system is out-of-date, and will no longer be supported as of next month. Using an unsupported system will slow our ability to find and attain new customers, allowing our competitors to take away business and overshadow our best-in-class products.

Which statement is more likely to make people run after that New Cheese? As long as there is an old platform left to stand on, there will be some people who just refuse to move. Paint a Picture One of the main points highlighted in the book is, "Imagining myself enjoying New Cheese even before I find it, leads me to it." (p. 58) This is an excellent strategy for individuals trying to make a change. Your job as a Change Manager is to paint the picture that individuals imagine. Help them picture what the New Cheese looks like, whether that means providing demonstrations of the new system, holding role-playing sessions of new business processes, or simply sending communications describing the end state of the change. If you don't paint the picture for them, people will create their own picture. If they create their own picture, you can't be sure that what they're imagining matches the reality of the change that is coming. This can lead to:

  1. People imagining a New Cheese that is so wonderful, the real thing will disappoint them.

  2. People imagining the New Cheese will taste awful, causing them to fight the change.

  3. People having no imagination at all and ignoring the need for change.

Once you've painted the picture, make sure that anyone else who talks about the change is describing the same picture. And don't be afraid to add details to the picture as they become available. Provide Quick Wins As Haw navigates the maze looking for his New Cheese, he finds himself getting weak. He hasn't had any cheese since he left the Cheeseless Station, and as his hunger grows, his commitment to finding New Cheese diminishes. Luckily, as Haw is reaching the end of his resolve, "He found little bits of Cheese here and there and began to regain his strength and confidence." (p. 67) This leads him to make the statement, "When you see that you can find and enjoy New Cheese, you change course." (p. 66) This revelation is the concept behind building "quick wins" into your project. The theory is that as people trudge along on the path to change, a path that can take months or years to complete, they will get overwhelmed and discouraged. This can cause them to eventually walk slower, stop walking, or even turn around and go back. To help keep people motivated, you need to break the path into smaller increments and celebrate each time you successfully navigate a portion. This helps people see that they can be successful and encourages them to tackle the next part of the change in a positive manner. These quick wins should be:

  1. Close together: Don't expect people to go a year between success and encouragement.

  2. Manageable: If people fail at the small pieces of the change, they will be convinced the larger change will fail, as well.

  3. Real achievements: Don't create a win just for the sake of having a win. It must be a real and meaningful accomplishment.

  4. Celebrated: Allow people to celebrate their achievement in making a small change, so that they have positive reinforcement for making the larger change.

Reward the Right Behavior I often see rewards and recognition programs at organizations that actually reward people for stubbornly staying with the Old Cheese, rather than encouraging them to embrace the New Cheese. In effect, the Haws of the organization, who work to find New Cheese, get to the new Cheese Station and find it empty. Meanwhile, the Hems of the organization remain in the Cheeseless Station (often making loud and belligerent comments about the futility of the New Cheese to anyone who will listen) and the organization eventually gives in and hands them some more cheese. Not only does this derail the current change effort, it also discourages people from embracing future changes. They have seen that if they just wait long enough they can be rewarded for maintaining the status quo. Here are a few reward and recognition Do's and Don'ts based on my project experience:

  • Do guarantee that anyone who joins a special project will still have their old job to return to when the project is done.

  • Don't pay out project bonuses based on hitting deadlines. This only encourages people to do things fast, not right.

  • Do recognize that people are going above and beyond their normal duties and are gaining new skills that can position them for better jobs and promotions.

  • Don't cause people to miss out on the benefits of their old job. If you ask a commission-based sales person to join a project, but don't supplement their income to make up for the commissions they'll lose, they have no incentive to become a member of the team.

And the unanswered question...Who moved my cheese? Dr. Johnson never answers this question in the book. The point he seems to make is, it doesn't matter who moved your cheese. Just get up and start looking for New Cheese. I would argue, however, that in a corporate Change Management program, answering this question is very important. Are we making the change because the customer is asking for it? Is the CEO decreeing the change? Is this based on a grass roots effort among employees? Understanding who moved the cheese can greatly impact people's emotional reaction to a change, which in turn will influence the type of Change Management program you create. Let me know: Have you read Who Moved My Cheese? What did you think of it?

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