Yang: Of Mice & Cheese, And Little People: Resistance, Action And Change

Los Alamos
Many years ago, when I was working in a diversity office, my manager excitedly asked me if I had read this wonderful little book “Who Moved My Cheese?
I was, and still am in general, very dubious about these popular trendy “how-to” books that pop up on the mass market. They can offer a few gems and some wisdom, but like motivational speeches, readers and listeners may feel “good” about certain messages … for a little while. But passage of time would dilute the enthusiasm, unless there is follow-up with actions. 
Nevertheless, I felt obligated to read it; it was a quick and easy read. Overall, I didn’t take to it, and it took a while for me to be able to verbalize my disquiet feelings.  
I read it again recently, just in case I might have come to a different level of appreciation. There are indeed some good tips, and because it’s a short fable with a mixture of rodent and homosapiens (albeit in rodent size) using simple logic, it actually does invite readers to contemplate and reflect. But what bothered me then, and still does now, is the whole premise that since changes are inevitably coming our way, we should just adapt ourselves in order to move on. 
There is nothing profoundly wrong with this particular stance, other than the notion that we would be better off blindly accepting all the changes, especially, changes imposed onto us from the top. Perhaps I am too idealistic, but I believe that there are times we need to question the premises of some changes. Not all changes are threatening, and not all are inevitably progress for us. 
I guess I’d better give a quick sketch of what the story entails before plunging in further with my reaction and analysis. The story involves two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two “littlepeople” in the size of mice, Hem and Haw.  These four beings worked in a maze to search for cheese. After they located a mother lode, they settled in comfortably and made a living off that hunk of cheese. Sniff and Scurry definitely were very comfortable; they built a “home” thinking that they’d have the cheese for life, Hem and Haw were always on the edge, ready to move on. 
After a while, as the cheese got smaller, the little people noticed it, left that chamber, and moved on to find other food sources.  The mice regarded the move silly and continued their comfortable living … till one day, the cheese was gone. The mice discussed the issue but thought for sure more cheese would appear. After another period, mouse Sniff began to think differently about staying put while mouse Scurry felt that the cheese was owed to him and didn’t see why he should bestir to look for new cheese.
More time passed, and eventually Sniff decided to face his fear of the unknown out there and moved on; at each turn of finding no cheese, he had to battle against his mounting fears and doubts. But eventually, he did find the new cheese, as well as the little people. While they all enjoyed the new find, they were also always in the “ready to move on” mode. Mouse Sniff left various messages along the maze walls in case his pal, Scurry, would decide to join them…
Nice little story, which seems to have inspired many people to buy the book (and probably read it) and some have indeed followed the cheese trail and changed the course of their lives.  I don’t mean to belittle the power of this message, I just question the premise that mouse Sniff’s adopting the change is the only or the best way of facing changes in organizational life. 
Here is an important distinction: Sniff’s decision to leave his friend, his comfort zone, and to step into the unknown, while courageous, is nevertheless an adaptive strategy. During the process, he did learn about himself, and discovered his core of being, willingness to question, tenacity, possession of some sense of humor, etc. He didn’t really change his core of being; what he changed was his behavior in order to survive and keep on living. His buddy, Scurry’s, didn’t even bother to change his behavior; he just kept digging deeper into his professed principles, i.e. cheese was owed to him and it wasn’t his fault that the cheese was gone. 
A “real” change to the core of being, in this case, the mice would/could have said something to themselves, like,
“Do we really eat only cheese?” Or,
“Could we try to make our own cheese?” 
“Is this maze (now, how would they recognize it’s a maze?) the only universe for us to locate cheese? Might there be more space outside these walls to look for ‘others’ or create something totally different?” 
“In what ways can we change our very being to pursue the next food sources?” And so forth. 
A friend introduced to me the concept of “technical change,” to be differentiated from “adaptive change.” I am not quite settled on this term – something is still missing – but for now it’s a good enough distinction. 
There are a couple of minor points that also bother me. In comparison to the “littlepeople,” the mice did not pay attention to the diminishing size of the cheese. According to the author, “The mice did not overanalyze things. And they were not burdened with many complex beliefs.” Yet, later, Sniff somehow developed incredible analytical capabilities to help himself understand the dire situation, visualize future possibilities, conquer fear with humor, and to keep himself moving forward by asking this question repeatedly, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” That is a very wise question. I know this is a fable, but when the logic doesn’t add up, it annoys me. 
Another pesky point is the lesson that “old beliefs do not lead you to cheese.” But how does one determine the belief in question is “old”? When does it become old? By what criteria? Did the criteria come from the same source that adopted these “old” beliefs in the first place? Or, did the source at some point stumble upon, or intentionally acquire, a new language or new set of frames with which to view the world? And should “old beliefs” include religious beliefs? My point is: What tools do we use to compare and judge one set of beliefs against other sets?  And how do we acquire these tools? And keep them polished?
If you have read Who Moved My Cheese? Please share some of your insights.
Till next time, Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com
Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.