Who Moved My Cheese?

‘Our World is in distress, not on pause!’ 

Good leaders are many things: positive and accountable, caring and resilient, knowledgeable and focused. But good leaders are also human and feel just as vulnerable as the rest of us in these uncertain times. Our world has been turned on its head and we need good leaders to help move things forward. In the face of adversity how will they do this and what’s in their secret sauce? Ingredient 1; ‘accept reality’.

Since the start of lockdown, I’ve had time to reflect on what ‘truly’ matters to me and my family, and Maslow has never made more sense! Covid has affected us all, be it our health (physical and mental), our relationships or our finances – no one has been spared. In my own case with running a small business, cashflow is never far from my mind at the best of times, so having landed a significant piece of work in December to see it canned in April was painful, to say the least. However, I consider myself lucky; I’m still here, so is my family and so is my business, so I thought ‘suck it up big man, shit happens get on with it’!

“Shit happens get on with it!”

There’s something inside us all that makes us want to help and there have been many touching examples in recent months. I thought to myself – ‘what can I do?’. I don’t drive an HGV, I don’t work in a shop, and I’m certainly not a nurse; but I do know change, and I know how to help people manage through it. I’ve written this article to kick-start thoughts, ideas and discussions between people who are willing to share their own Covid story and inspire others into action. Lockdown has been tough for everyone but our route through it will be made easier if we are there for one another.

Why the cheesy title? I’d love to say I came up with it, unfortunately I didn’t. It’s the title of a book written by Dr Spencer Johnson, for those unfamiliar with it it’s an easy one-hour read, 94 pages of big font. The book tells the story of four little characters: Scurry and Sniff, Hem and Haw, who all live in a maze and all really love cheese. One morning they awake to find the cheese is missing! Without a second thought, Scurry and Sniff are off into the maze in search of new cheese, whilst Hem and Haw just sit and stare at the empty space the cheese once occupied. Hem and Haw keep returning to the same familiar place in the hope it’s back, but it never is! Haw eventually accepts his reality and sets into the maze to find new cheese. Isolated and unable to break out of his mindset Hem keeps returning to the place where cheese used to be!  

“Old beliefs won’t lead you to new cheese.”

What can each of the characters teach us?

As the old saying goes, nobody likes change; but if you are willing to accept it and move in a different direction you will find new cheese much faster. Here are six ingredients worth adding to your sauce:

1.    Accept reality

2.    Be vigilant

3.    Put focus where it matters most

4.    It’s about where you’re going

5.    Action is the only difference

6.    Take in the view

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“Cheese makes you happy”

Ingredient #1: Accept reality

‘They keep moving my cheese!’  

We live in uncertain times and the more we can condition ourselves to be comfortable in discomfort, the greater our ability to deal with change in a calm and controlled way. One thing I learned some time ago was I was able to create spaces between external situations and my emotional reaction by ‘choosing’ a response. This was a revelation and made me recognise that I tended to react to situations before my brain had the chance to kick in. Mastering this wasn’t easy but the more I practiced the better I got and the clearer and calmer I felt. The technique is called ‘STOPP’ and there is lots of information online if you’re interested in learning more. I use it on a daily basis, it can take as little as one minute to do. It’s become a habit and helps to ground me in any type of stressful situation.  

Ingredient #2: Be vigilant 

‘Get ready for the cheese to move again.’  

Covid has brought profound change to our lives. What will the next change look like, when will it occur; who knows? But it ‘will’ and if we are prepared to accept this fact then we are already conditioning our minds to deal with it when it does. We don’t have a crystal ball so when change does arrive it will still likely surprise us, but there are steps we can take. Ask yourself: to navigate through Covid what are the ‘core’ activities critical to the success of my business? Do I already know? If yes great, but if not it’s a good time to figure it out. There are many things you do as a matter of routine in normal circumstances, but these times are anything but normal. Your success will depend on how well you protect the core, make this your mission! 

Ingredient #3: Put focus where it matters most

‘Smell the cheese often.’  

Protecting the core means spending as much time and effort as possible focusing on the core activities. You can’t cover all the bases yourself, so who else can help? Can you measure the performance of the core activities, do you discuss them often and is there an early warning system in place to inform you when the ‘cheese starts to go off’? Protecting is much simpler than attempting to anticipate and plan for every possible eventuality.

Ingredient #4: It’s about where you’re going

‘The quicker you let go of old cheese the sooner you can enjoy new.’  

Transfixing on life pre-Covid will nail your feet to the floor and hinder forward movement. The new reality is not about where you’ve been, it’s about where we are going. As hard as it is, you must learn to let go and focus your efforts on reaching your new destination. But where is that destination? Will the core activities you are focused on get you there or must you do more? Consider what you want to achieve. You may already have an aspirational 5-year strategy however, in the current climate who knows how things will play out so perhaps a shorter-term view will work better until things begin to settle. Focusing on nearer-term goals e.g. 60-90-days may bring greater clarity and focus and a sense of normality which has been lacking in recent times. 

Ingredient #5: Action is the only difference 

‘Go where the cheese is.’ 

You’ve got a plan, now you need to get stuff done. Easy to say, not so easy to do, but one thing is clear: action is the only thing that makes a difference! Being able to translate a plan into action is an important ingredient in the leader’s secret sauce. Plans must make clear ‘where’ we want to be, by ‘when’, and crucially also explain the ‘why’. The more that people can emotionally buy-in, the more likelihood of its success. Making people accountable for completing actions i.e. ‘being on the hook’ will compel the completion of actions, so too will following up. Putting in place simple PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) routines will help you to spot when things start going off-track, reinforce ownership and inject urgency. Scurry and Sniff didn’t hang about, they knew immediately their cheese had moved and acted without hesitation.      

Ingredient #6: Take in the view

‘Enjoy the taste of new cheese.’   

In time taking the right action will pay off, enjoy your cheese, you’ve earned it; but continue to be vigilant or it will move again! The Military accept plans will change no matter how well they are crafted. Military tactics must adapt to prevailing conditions; ‘No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.’ Military Commanders endeavour to create ‘force effects’ i.e. find new cheese whilst contending with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the emerging situation. They are conditioned to accept that the emerging reality will differ from what they planned i.e. shit happens and they must evolve tactics based upon continual intelligence gathering until the force effect is achieved. The OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is a military technique designed to deal with uncertainty. Developed by U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd, it is a structured approach to decision-making which focuses on providing leaders with situational awareness by filtering information and providing actionable insights so effective decisions can be made and effects achieved.    

Change takes many forms and your success in managing will be determined by how well you sense and respond to it. Cheese always moves so accepting change when it arrives is a key ingredient which will help you move forward much faster. Knowing what’s critical to success brings focus and perspective and helps critical decision making and prioritising where you put attention and effort. Action is the only thing that makes a difference and acts as the bridge between intentions and goals. When you find your new cheese celebrate it and take time to enjoy it but be ready for it to move again!  

“Moving in a different direction will help you find new cheese.”

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