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I Moved Your Cheese

When adaptation appears to be the only viable option, we should do more than blindly accept change or eagerly adapt to it.

February 21, 2012
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If you lead an organization or manage the human resources of a business, there is a key question with which you might want to grapple: If you were a mouse trapped in a maze, and someone kept moving the cheese, what would you do?

The question is worth pondering because your answer may inform you about your own beliefs about fundamental questions that are relevant to the management and development of talent in an organization: What drives people? For what do people strive? Under what conditions do people thrive? Your beliefs about these drive/strive/thrive questions are likely to impact how you think about and enact key human resource decisions around incentive design, goal-setting, performance measurement, culture creation, norm-setting, hierarchy and team structure, promotion policies and approach to training and development.

So, what would you do as that mouse?

More than a decade ago, Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? — a business fable about mice who lived in a maze — offered an answer to the question: You should accept that change is inevitable and beyond your control; don’t waste your time wondering why things are the way they are. Keep your head down and start looking for the cheese. This message — that change happens, and we need to quickly gather the strength to move on and adapt — is neither incorrect nor trivial. But it is incomplete and perhaps even dangerous.

As anyone who has faced a crisis will attest, even when adaptation appears to be the only viable option, we should do more than blindly accept change or eagerly adapt to it. We should seek to understand why the change has been forced on us, how we might exert greater control in our lives, whether the goals we are chasing are the correct ones, and what it would take to escape the kinds of mazes in which we are always subject to the designs of others. In other words, effective adaptation is not enough for organizations to survive or for their people to thrive.

Moreover, perhaps we should think twice before telling would-be innovators, problem solvers, entrepreneurs and leaders in our organizations that instead of wasting their time wondering why things are the way they are, they should simply accept their world as given.

Now imagine your organization represents a mouse trapped in a maze and someone keeps moving the cheese. How would you want the people in your organization to respond? Would you want to merely demand action — go find the cheese! Or would you want to inspire curiosity, creativity and a willingness to challenge assumptions and the old ways of thinking and doing?

These considerations led me to write I Moved Your Cheese (IMYC). Like its predecessor, IMYC is a fable about mice in a maze, but this novel tells the story of three mice — Max, Zed and Big — who begin to question what others have taken for granted.

Rather than simply accepting their fate and dutifully chasing after cheese, they break the rules, challenge the limitations and constraints others have accepted, and set out to create new realities and escape the maze. In doing so, they tell us a lot about what drives people, what they strive for and under what conditions they thrive.

The one thing all three mice have in common is they are not simply in it for the cheese. Cheese can get you moving, but it doesn’t motivate the kind of inspiration or ingenuity that leads mice to break through walls. Most organizations could use a little wall-breaking.

At its core, I Moved Your Cheese is motivated by a simple observation: leadership, innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, problem solving, business growth and personal development always depend on the ability to challenge accepted notions, reshape the environment and play by a different set of rules — our own. For organizations to find success in these areas, they need to create environments that inspire curiosity, experimentation and unorthodoxy, and challenge their employees to understand the ways in which we unwittingly limit ourselves.

Deepak Malhotra is a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of I Moved Your Cheese. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.

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