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