What politicians, small business and mice have in common

Jim Blasingame

As we stand here on the threshold of another national election year, it's appropriate to turn to the legendary book by the late Dr. Spencer Johnson. Who Moved My Cheese? tells the story of four characters who ate only one thing: cheese.

Every day, all four characters went to a specific place in their world – a maze – where they found cheese. The first two were not picky about their cheese, nor where they found it – it was just food they found in a place. Then, one day – you guessed it – somebody moved their cheese. These two unfinicky fromage finders immediately began looking for the new place where cheese was being put.

The expectations of the second two characters in Johnson's story were different; to them, cheese represented more than food. They had allowed themselves to become defined by not only the specific kind of cheese that they had always found but also by that specific place in the maze. To them, this combination was more than nourishment – it represented their self-esteem, success, and happiness. It was who they were. You've heard of being hidebound? Well, you might say these two were cheesebound (my term, not Johnson's). Of course, being cheesebound wasn't a problem until – right again – somebody moved their cheese.

In his legendary book (and film), Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, futurist Joel Barker defines a paradigm as a set of rules that 1) establishes/defines boundaries, and 2) promotes behavior that helps you to be successful when operating within those boundaries. Barker says paradigms, whether institutionally codified or deeply personal, can be useful until there's a shift – a paradigm shift. Which is exactly what happened to the four characters when somebody moved their cheese. But instead of looking for new cheese like their two maze-mates, the second two were so heavily invested in the old paradigm – "this is the place where we get our cheese" – that they put their survival in jeopardy.

Johnson's cautionary tale, and the two sides of Barker's paradigm coin, apply to all parts of life, but especially politics and business.

For generations, like the characters in Johnson's story, Democrats and Republicans each showed up at the same place in their political maze where they'd always found the cheese they liked. But like the second two characters, both parties defined themselves by the cheese they found in their specific spots, and they found success by operating within the rules of their political paradigm.

But then, somebody moved their cheese.

In the third decade of the 21st century, the electorate is moving the political cheese. The cheesebound members of both parties will double-down on past practices and rhetoric – their paradigm – in a futile attempt to hold on to their old cheese, rather than taking action to find the new stuff. In his book, Johnson said: "Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese."

Ultimately, the election victors this November will be like the first two characters in Johnson's story: They won't define themselves by the old cheese in the old location. Instead, they will look for, find and earn the new cheese, which is now in a new place, moved there by the current electorate with third-decade-of-the-21st-century expectations. Johnson says, "Movement in a new direction helps you find the new cheese."

We should take a lesson from the clinic that both political parties are putting on this year. Winners in the marketplace this year, and politicians in November, will be those who understand, accept and adjust to avoid the wages of being cheesebound. In your business, the new cheese you find in the new place is a product of the evolving expectations of your customers. And like the electorate, your customers are moving cheese – and paradigms are shifting – all over the marketplace.

Joel Barker says, "When a paradigm shifts, everything goes back to zero." Your small business cannot afford for its leader to become cheesebound, and wind up holding a goose egg.

Write this on a rock ... Blasingame's Law of Business Love (and Cheese): It's okay to fall in love with what you do (cheese), but it's not okay to fall in love with how you do it (the old cheese in the old place).

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.

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