The “Who Moved My Cheese?” Syndrome

I just realized that it has been a few months since my last post. I miss gathering my thoughts and sharing them. The fact of the matter is that I was busy affecting change in the organization. It was not easy but it was necessary.

The corporation of the District of Lake Country was created in 1995 and the main concern in the first few years since its ‘birth’ was to ‘learn’ its place and role in the community. Then there was the economic boom and the organization was busy handling and managing tremendous growth, in fact the fastest in British Columbia for a municipality its size. In all this, both Council and the Administration had no choice but to react to circumstances and new realities because the organization was still growing, and, in the process, learning its way through.

When I arrived in Lake Country at the end of 2009, I decided, in accordance with Council, to take the organization to the next step in order to go, as Stephen Covey suggests in his bestselling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, from being reactive to being proactive. The first action was to set a vision and prioritize goals in order to accomplish that vision. Then it was time to focus on the priorities and observe how the organization would respond to the solicitation to change from a reactive state of doing business to a very proactive one. The process was very revealing and it became clear that the organization needed to be realigned to fulfill its newly established vision. The process to ‘reorganize’ began in May 2011. I personally interviewed all staff members and then Council gave the official green light to do a full Business Systems Review of the District. Mainly, the review brought to light that:

  • Money is needed to fill the infrastructure needs of the community;
  • The organizational structure was out of balance and needed to be changed; and
  • The development application process is convoluted and needs to be streamlined and simplified.

There are also other things like the cost of our contracts with service providers, including other government agencies, and investment attraction to Lake Country. But we will address the three main issues first and work on the others as soon as progress is made.

The first two items are certainly related. The strategy is to lighten operational costs and apply the savings against needed capital projects. The immediate step was to reorganize the various departments and cut positions. We went from 7 departments to 5 and we had to cut three management and six union positions. This is an overall cut of almost 14% of our work force.

New development application guidelines are being prepared and Council asked me to review other suggestions and make more recommendations in the next few weeks.

There are some leadership lessons that were learned. Not that I had not known them before, but the District was not really used to them and individuals are still trying to figure them out.

The most evident is that people understand change but are reluctant to embrace it especially when it affects them directly. In our case, the majority of the staff members I interviewed recognized that change was overdue in many ways, including in the numbers of people working for our organization. However, and although changes were communicated very clearly and often, staff felt upset and, in some cases, devastated by what was happening. I call this the “Who Moved My Cheese?” syndrome.

In his book by the same title, Dr. Spencer Johnson tells the tale of two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two “Littlepeople”, Hem and Haw, who live in a “Maze” and look for “Cheese” to nourish them and make them happy. “Cheese” is a metaphor for what is wanted in life – a good job, a loving relationship, a possession, health, etc. – and the “Maze” is where we look for what we want – the organization we work in, or the family or community we live in. In the story the characters are faced with unexpected change. Eventually, one of them deals with it successfully because he looks for new cheese and by trial and error he finds it. He writes what he learns through the process, which, if applied, helps individuals how to deal with change, enjoy less stress and more success (however we define it) at work and in our lives. I really recommend everyone read this book. It is an easy read but very profound in the concepts delivered.

What I found is that people don’t like change because it makes them go out of their comfort zone. But it’s a false assumption. There is no comfort zone. It is a creation of our mind that is naturally developed to stifle conflict, which creates tension. The actual reality is that change is constant. We change by the minute. Although we may feel we have a routine and we like to stick to it, the reality is that the routine is only a guideline and it varies as things happen around us. Our physical structure and appearance also changes all the time. We may think we are the same person we were 20 or 30 years ago but in reality we are not, we just need to take a look at a picture of ourselves 20 or 30 years ago and then look at ourselves in a mirror. The same can be said for the natural and social environments, both globally and locally.

So what is the only stable thing for the District of Lake Country? Simple: change is and will be the norm. We will continue to accept and foster change as part of our business modus operandi. We will continue to challenge ourselves and even our policies to bring the best to and into the community. Finally, we will become the community of choice for those who want to live, play, invest and work in a progressive and yet protective and protected environment where the value of the beauty we have will be joined by vibrancy and prosperity.


6 thoughts on “The “Who Moved My Cheese?” Syndrome

  1. Alberto,
    It’s nice to see you active again on this blog. Hope your family is all well. I know you as a good man, and you are an example of honesty and integrity. That said, for me, being an employee of a public organization, I see the book you mentioned in a different way. I was handed over that book three year ago by my direct manager, but eventually not much changed in my workplace, so not a big deal, just a scare. Now if we had had the same management style we would have received a new copy, because things are about to change, again. While the need for change is evident and necessary in certain organizations, the way the changes are done and the ultimate objective of the changes, sometimes are not to be assumed to be the best possible, and the employee doesn’t have a say in this. He can only adapt, or move on, with all the risks that this entails. Not nice not to have a say on this. In times or restructuring and downsizing the risk is that the people that did their job the best and put a lot of “unpaid” effort into it, for passion, dedication or just for they own good nature, get the boot, just because…. Here we go again with the clash, the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest, or the “other” way, the way, of preserving the integrity of families and the people that make the difference? The bulldozer that razors the place or a selective pick of those that really need to be “moved”. There is a lot of “O’Leary” style management out there, “it’s not personal, it’s business”, I am confident you are not one of them. It’s difficult to strike the right balance between the need for change and need to preserve what it is good and who deserves. Unfortunately, there is currently very little attention to this, because “the bottom line” is the imperative. I have the hope, actually the certainty that at list you, you that I know as a good man, that knows how difficult can be for a family to loose the only means of survival, have gone great lengths to preserve the shock to those that don’t deserve it. I am attaching to this the criticism section about the book you cited from wikipedia, just to make sure there is an understanding that, one the other side of the fence, thinks are not always wrong. :

    From Wikipedia, about the book about the Cheese:

    Some managers are known to mass-distribute copies of the book to employees, some of whom see this as an insult, or an attempt to characterize dissent as not “moving with the cheese”. In the corporate environment, management has been known to distribute this book to employees during times of “structural re-organization,” or during cost-cutting measures, in an attempt to portray unfavorable or unfair changes in an optimistic or opportunistic way. This misuse of the book’s message is seen by some as an attempt by organizational management to make employees quickly and unconditionally assimilate management ideals, even if they may prove detrimental to them professionally. Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams claims that patronizing parables are one of the top 10 complaints he receives in his email.[2]”

    1. Hi Cesare and thank you very much for your comments. I totally agree with them. The emphasis of my message was not on the book itself, which could be interpreted in many different ways. My point is that we need to understand that change is constant and sometime we do not like it because we get comfortable in what we have and are. Nature forces change on us and so we need to deal with it. We don’t like sickness and yet we have to deal with it. We don’t like death and yet we will have to face it. We don’t like aging but we need to realize that we become old. It is wiser to accept change and work with it than fight it when there is nothing we can do about it. We may not be able to like what is happening around us but we can have a positive attitude about ourselves and how we deal with our response to negativity, trials and tribulations. Viktor Frankl, the famous psychotherapist inventor of the logotherapy, in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ clearly says that, while in a concentration camp the Germans could take everything from him but his ultimate freedom which is how to react to things. As human beings we have time between the stimulus and the response so we can actually be proactive and find a way to deal with what happens to us. I would add that sometimes we have to resort to conflict when basic rights are taken away from us, but I always think that conflict is the last resort. I believe that the manager that asked all your staff to read Johnson’s book may have made a big mistake by doing so. Mistakes are part of life and they affect people. I wouldn’t have done it unless I had a long discussion with staff. As to changes in Lake Country, they were requested not only by Council but by the Community. It was not a management feat. Believe me when I say that I was extremely distressed when I had to deliver the bad news to the directors and managers that were let go. In fact, at some point I felt really sick. I was also able to provide an adjustment plan to the union and of the six individuals affected by the layoffs, four were able to be rehired in different positions, one was offered a new position but graciously declined, and one unfortunately will leave the job. That is actually very positive because it was a team effort. We are not just reviewing our own organization, but also our contractual relationship with other agencies and private contractors that provide services to the residents and processes and procedures that deal with important applications to receive permits. If I can make a comment on the Health System, there are a number of problems with respect to service delivery, costs and the way people are treated by the Health Sector leaders. We are not that way and we are small enough to look after our own.

  2. With the downturn economy, you see California is 16 billion behind in its budget. It is like a small country. It would be the 5th largest economy of the world if it were it’s own country. I have been affected by the downturn economy, being laid off, being on unemployment, getting an extension, having myriad interviews but no job offers. It was depressing. Someone had moved my cheese. Then my wife died, and I had to borrow money from my son to bury her. Layoff was in March 2009. Since then, I’ve worked a two-week job, a 2 month job, a 3 month job and now a 4 month job that is turning into a permanent job! After all this time, I’ll have medical coverage again, 3 weeks vacation, and long-term disability! I’m thankful to have weathered the downturn economy and to be on top of the heap again! I now have my cheese firmly in grasp!

    1. I am glad to hear. Faith and hope in the future and help from friends and family are a critical part of the process. Thank you Keith.

  3. It is a good extension of the old don’t cry over spilled milk theme- or the serenity prayer.
    When it is handed out by the superior as a prelude to a Bane-Capital-esque dumping, that’s such a misuse of the message- that they might as well break the news by placing a dead rrrRAT on everyone’s desk.

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