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November 7, 2002

"Who stole my cheese?" program explains how to deal with change

As an anonymous wag once put it: “The only one who likes change is a wet baby.”

But change is a fact of life and we all have to deal with it, according to a Faculty and Staff Assistance Program/EAP Solutions speaker.

“There is almost always a duality about change,” Linda Neuenschwander said. “Change means good and bad. It means something new that could be better, but it means leaving something comfortable behind, letting go of the old ways.”

Neuenschwander led a workshop called “Who Moved My Cheese?” based on the best-selling self-help book by Spencer Johnson. The Oct. 28 workshop, which drew about 150 people, was sponsored by Pitt’s Staff Association Council.

While acknowledging that the framework laid out by Johnson was somewhat simplistic — the presentation featured a cartoon with stereotypical characters (two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two men, Hem and Haw) coping with change — Neuenschwander maintained that the scenario provided a common language and way of thinking about change in one’s life, be it personal or professional.

“The language makes things clearer and you can talk about change in what I call our private paths with common ground,” Neuenschwander said.

The story of the four cartoon characters reveals different reactions, attitudes and strategies following the unexpected loss of their food supply.

The mice, Sniff and Scurry, are immediately desperate without their cheese. Sniff uses scent to systematically start his quest for new cheese; Scurry runs in all directions. Eventually, the mice find new cheese and make their home near the new supply, apparently always to repeat that pattern.

For Hem and Haw, the cheese is a metaphor for a familiar place, a comfort zone.

“Sniff can smell change in the air; Scurry goes into action immediately [without forethought]; Hem does not want to change under any circumstances, and Haw is startled by change, but then laughs at himself, changes and moves on to new cheese.”

Which one of the characters are you most like when your cheese is moved, or are you a combination? Neuenschwander asked the audience as a starting point for self-evaluation.

Cheese, is this context, is whatever is important to the individual, whether in one’s home life or at work.

“What is your cheese? Some examples in your personal life might be your family, spirituality, your security, be it safety, health, the comfort of a loving relationship, national security, your financial security,” Neuenschwander said. “Regarding your job, when you get up in the morning, what do you think about doing during the day? What makes your job important to you and satisfying?”

But whatever one’s cheese is, it’s always moving (or changing), sometimes within one’s control, but most times not.

According to Neuenschwander, the questions to ask ourselves include: “Can we anticipate change; can we see it coming? Can we monitor change — smell the cheese and know when it’s getting old, when we have to move on or change our behavior? Can we adapt to change quickly? The quicker the better; because it will lead to more energy, motivation, confidence and, hopefully, the ability to enjoy change, again and again.”

Neuenschwander said the last quality, enjoying change for change’s sake, is particularly difficult for many people. “How do you feel good without knowing the outcome? How can you enjoy the journey to change? I have trouble with that myself,” she said.

Neuenschwander also had some cautionary advice for those responsible for initiating change: Change imposed is change opposed.

“People resent it when they are not included in the thought process. In truth, we all would feel better if we are consulted and at least feel a part of the process instead of change as a directive: ‘Do this, do it quickly, don’t ask questions.’”

On the other hand, those who can sniff out upcoming change have an advantage of not being surprised and a better chance to prepare. “So keep your nose to that cheese,” Neuenschwander said.

The strategy that Johnson recommends in his book is dubbed a journey of gain, Neuenschwander said.

“We all know some people who stay in the same situation for years, resisting change, whining about it, complaining, sometimes before a change is even put into place. People like this are unpleasant to be around, and risk ‘extinction.’”

The cartoon character Hem feels change as something that’s been done to him: “It’s not fair, somebody moved my cheese,” Hem laments. Inertia becomes his driving force: “They’ll bring my cheese back. My cheese has always been here. I’ll wait for it to come back.” Both Hem and Haw go through a journey of loss that includes stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, Neuenschwander said. Hem eventually accepts that his cheese is gone but nonetheless stays put, locked in a kind of paralysis. The danger is that he is susceptible to extinction, symbolically going the way of the steel industry, for example, that would not adapt to change or could not do it fast enough to survive, Neuenschwander said.

In contrast, Haw, spurred on by positive thinking, passion and commitment, accepts the situation and moves in a new direction, eventually discovering new cheese.

Haw’s path is a journey of gain, Neuenschwander said. “But it’s a journey. Can I simply leap forward, and get to my new cheese? No, you have to realize that you’re in a cycle, you’re on a path.”

The path includes:

• Adjusting to the fact of change. “This is not the same as accepting, as in the journey of loss. It’s a step where you’re ready to move forward toward what you must do differently.”

• Imagining what the change will look like. “This is like asking, What is my goal? Is the new cheese more of the same? In a new relationship, am I looking for the same type of person or a different type, and if different, how different? What does that look like?”

But in imagining new cheese one should be realistic, she continued. “Many people set themselves up for failure by not allowing a reasonable timeline to find new cheese; you need an appropriate pace for you.”

• Forming an action plan. “You need to set goals that are reasonable and sustainable and take steps, sometimes tiny ones, toward those goals.”

• Recognizing that going into action itself can be joyful. “For Haw, just knowing he can go in a new direction means he has overcome fear of change.”

• Measuring progress. “Sometimes it’s two steps backwards, for one step forward, but looking for new cheese gets one closer to finding it.”

• Feeling achievement. “It feels good to find new cheese, like a new job. It’s an accomplishment. It means you go past fear and away from comfort. You also develop confidence to face more change in the future.”

“In the cartoon, Haw is more the ideal,” Neuenschwander said. “Haw is startled by the moved cheese, but he is moving in a purposeful way, looking for new cheese. He may have setbacks, he may not move that quickly, he may even go in the wrong direction at first, but finally he finds new cheese and he says he won’t be caught again without cheese. He’ll be ready the next time change happens.

“It is not the strongest who survive, it’s not the most intelligent who survive, it’s those who are most responsive to change.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 6

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