The Problem with Cheese – a true story

An intro to addressing change in your organisation

18 July 2017 | Craig Smith | , ,

As Learning and Development specialists we often get challenged to come up with new ways to help change processes, attitudes and work place cultures. We are given documents that spell out the changes, and for the most part they make complete and total sense. Facts in black and white that illustrate how the changes will improve ‘X’ or decrease ‘Y’.

Thing is though, facts don’t mean a thing. Facts don’t change people’s minds. Change is only good if there is a belief in the change.

image 1And there lies the problem.

At ‘Wendell Worthing’s Wonderful Whistle Works’ there was a long standing tradition that their whistles should be made of Wensleydale. They didn’t sell particularly well on the basis that they were made of cheese, but that was the way it had always been. In despair after another year of disappointing whistle sales, Wendell sent his son William to find out why their biggest competitor was doing so much more business.

An excited and determined William took the journey across the country to ‘Tommy Topping’s Terrific Tin Tooters’; where he found that instead of the finest dairy produce, the whistles there were in fact made of tin. Who would have thought? They trilled, they sang, they were music to the young William’s ears. Agog at this discovery ‘Worthing the Younger’ returned home to spread the news that there was a better way to make whistles. Whistles that actual whistled, and not whistles that parped with the resonance of… well, a whistle made of Wensleydale.

Upon his return, William gathered his father Wendell; Wallace the chief designer; Wentworth the accountant, and the workers’ spokesperson, Bob, into the board room.

He addressed them about all he had seen, how tin was a sustainable, affordable material. How that with minor tweaks to the design, and an alignment of process ‘Wendell Worthing’s Wonderful Whistles’ would be exactly that… wonderful.

The room fell quiet.

William felt the eyes of everyone bearing down upon him, he glanced over to his father. Surely he would see?

It was not to be, as Wendell Worthing sat there at the head of the table, red faced and fuming.

He erupted, “That is not the way we do things here” the board nodded in agreement.

“Who has ever heard of a tin whistle?! Everybody knows the finest whistles are made of cheese. We have made cheese whistles for generations!” Once again the board nodded in total support.

image 2 amended

One by one they spoke to ridicule the notion that tin was the reason that tin whistles whistled in the way they did. Bob, the voice of the workers, even said that the people on the shop floor would never buy this crazy notion. “It was bad enough” he said, when William had suggested that they should employ a factory cat to “keep the mice at bay. Surely having many mice visit was proof that they were indeed using the finest cheese.”

“But father…” William protested.

“No William, I have heard enough.”

Outcast, William left the room disillusioned, disheartened and distraught. Why couldn’t they see?

What William had faced that day is similar to those who propose change across most, if not all organisations.

The issue isn’t that the change is incorrect, or harmful, it’s that it is different to what people already believe in.

You see, humans are hard-wired to believe in ‘what they know, is what is right’. We aren’t the most rational of beings, we make decisions based mostly on emotion instead of fact. This is only amplified when we are in a group/team/gang/gaggle or organisation that believes in the same thing. Introducing something that is different challenges that belief. We pull together in the belief that this change, these facts, are somehow wrong; that they are there to try and change who we are. The more the change is pushed, the stronger the resistance.

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What we end up with then is either: no change at all, or; an imposed change that isn’t embraced, that will invariably fail, as no-one was willing to see the benefits.

How then do we make sure it happens successfully?

From a Learning Design point of view it is often futile to simply put together a shiny new training package that has bells and whistles (even tin ones), and hope that this is enough to disguise the change.

The exact how to do this is for another time, but I will say that unless we address the reasons why we believe in what we do, we are on the path to disaster. Managing change isn’t easy, but it’s certainly less painful if you have everyone re-aligning themselves to want the change….