Of Penguins and Mice
In 2017 Huffington Post published my column titled “Of Penguins and Mice – Coping with Change.” It was my take on changes in business and leadership’s reaction to marketplace shift as presented in two iconic books. We live in perpetually changing business climates, up and down turns, new trends and technology advances that require a response. None of those hold a candle to what businesses are going through during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Industry after industry are fighting for survival. Sadly, it is estimated that over 30% of businesses forced to close will never open again. The economic engine formed by small businesses is being crippled. Our times are unprecedented, and the future is unknown.
Sometimes the past is prologue.
The article “Of Penguins and Mice – Coping with Change”, Huffington Post, circa 2017 follows:
I just read two wonderful business books. They have both been around for quite a while and so have I. I had heard of both at different times over my career but never felt the urge to read them.
Instead, I read books about selling, strategy, customer service, and how to be a leader. All of those were great in and of themselves. I learned much and quite often incorporated lessons into my philosophy and thinking. Overall, I believe I was better off for reading them.
What I didn’t read about was managing change. Seeing change, working through change, and accomplishing change. But I have now.
The two books are “Our Iceberg is Melting” by John Kotter and “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, M.D. Iceberg was published in 2005 and Cheese in 1998. So, by my own estimation and simple math I am twelve and nineteen years behind the curve. To quote from “Who Moved My Cheese?”, “Better late than never.”
The premise of both books is change. Identifying when it is happening, what needs to be done about the change, how to make the change an opportunity and not be handcuffed by it, and how to institute a new paradigm. Interestingly enough the books apply equally to life as they do to business.
Iceberg is told as a fable about a colony of Penguins that are confronted with a potentially disastrous situation. Fred, one of the colony penguins, is the first to take notice of the changes in the stability of their Iceberg. He sees the deterioration of the structure of the berg and brings it to the attention of leadership. It is a hard sell but Fred finally convinces them that their home and way of life are in danger of breaking up and leaving them homeless. Eventually, the inevitability of having to move off the Iceberg leads them to face an uncertain future. The penguin leaders and citizens have mixed reactions and are not initially on board with the changes that will be necessary for their very own survival. It takes work, organization, dedication and vision to execute a plan designed for the good of all. It is the quest for their new Iceberg home that is the metaphor we all recognize as the need for change. The lesson is in the process. From identifying the problem, brainstorming possible courses of action, agreeing on a plan, building the teams necessary and then managing the execution of the plan. The Penguins lead us through the facets of the individuals in the process and how each was approached differently to achieve success.
In Cheese, also told in fable style, two sets of characters – two mice and two Little People who live in a maze, are faced with choices when their respective cheese cache is gone. The cheese represents most anything that can be considered of great value and desire to possess – a thriving business – a fancy car – a big house – a good job. When the cheese gets moved it is the difference in their responses that provides the lessons. The mice, Sniff and Scurry, do not hesitate to take action once the cheese is gone. Off they go into the maze not knowing if they will find new cheese. Hem and Haw, the Little People, do just that, they hem and haw. They get stuck in overthinking what action should come next even though they already ran out of cheese. Eventually Haw gets it and takes action. Haw takes us on a journey through the maze in search of his new cheese and lays out his internal challenges and observations along the way. Haw perseveres and finds new cheese, more plentiful then what was moved. Hem however is a question mark because the book ends and we are not sure if Hem ever did look for more or at least different cheese.
Both of these books are relatively short and can be read in one sitting but pack many insights and lessons for anyone faced with change. It is easy reading, both authors set their stories in fantasy settings and present fables that are enjoyable, even if a bit quirky. Penguins, mice, and Little People open a window to simple truths that are invaluable when change is on the menu.
If you have not added these two books to your reading list, now is as good a time as any because change is always right around the corner.
Without dramatic changes even more businesses will suffer the death blow inflicted by a force that was never of their making. God Bless you all. Now get yourself off the Iceberg and find the cheese.
The author, Greg Demetriou is the CEO of Lorraine Gregory Communications, the founder of GregsCornerOffice.com and the host of the Ask A CEO video and podcast show. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.