Who Moved My Cheese?

Who Moved My Cheese? is a book with an entertaining yet profound parable for the challenges that “change” presents. Four characters who live in a “Maze” are in pursuit of “Cheese”; a metaphor for satisfaction. Sniff and Scurry are mice; Hem and Haw are the same size as mice but people, or at least a lot like people.

The “Maze” is the context where they search out satisfaction- a metaphor for how we too seek out happiness at home, in work, or in our communities. In the story, each character is faced with unexpected change. Only one of the four characters embraces the possibilities and finds a way to adapt, and then graffities what he has learned on the walls of the Maze.

The moral of the tale is: when you see “The Handwriting on the Wall,” you can discover for yourself and ideally with others a way to adapt that makes best sense for you. The writing on the wall is not a map, it’s a reminder that there is no map, just a compass, and that you make the path by walking it, while paying attention.

The book is worth reading, if you haven’t already, it’s simplicity is refreshing.

Thinking about the book again made me reflect on the three questions we use a lot in Asset-Based Community Development circles (ABCD) to navigate the maze of the social contract between communities and institutions:

  1. What can communities do alone?
  2. What can they do with help?
  3. What do they need done for them?


The graffiti on the wall that ABCD offers is:

  1. Starting with what residents can do themselves as an association of citizens, without any outside help.
  2. Then look at what they can do with a little outside help.
  3. Finally, once these local assets have been fully connected and mobilized, citizens decide collectively on what they want outside agents to do for them.

If you start with 3 above, you stay there!

I sometimes describe these three levels, as like lanes on a highway. If we’re going to keep the flow and progress (flourish forward fairly) we need to indicate before we cross over lanes and wait to be invited in. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, such as emergencies, but the extreme should not become the mean.


Swiss Cheese

Here’s another way to picture the three lane highway. Below are three pieces of swiss cheese. Here, we see what happens when we start with an agency lead response, the best you can hope for is some marginal breakthrough onto the second piece of swiss cheese, but then you hit an impasse and it becomes near impossible to reach the third piece of cheese (the community).



I like the metaphor of the swiss cheese because it recognises the permeability and possibility of a better relationship between all three pieces.

A Practical Example

Have you heard about the “defund the police” debate which hit the headlines in a number of US cities following the murder of George Floyd? It is to my mind highly likely in many instances that where progressive cities do relocate some funding away from law enforcement it will simply go to another institution, most likely mental health-related. No bad thing you might say! But then, more often than not, it will get stuck.

A way to resolve this blockage is to start from a different place, as is illustrated with the graphic below. Again in this graphic, we have three pieces of swiss cheese, but this time we read the writing on the wall first and start with the community piece, scoping out community alternatives to incarceration and then once that’s done progressing to the middle and last piece of cheese. This order ensures that institutions supplementing our appetite for justice and safety with the resources of outside agencies, while not eclipsing community capacities.

This is exactly what we are beginning to see happen in cities like Milwaukee, in the US, where, through their “Blueprint For Peace” initiative, resources are going directly into employ community builders in and from the local neighbourhood where the tool of racial inequity has impacted most. Instead of taking a police enforcement approach to the issues at hand, they are taking a public health and asset-based community development approach: they have read the writing on the wall.



Who Moved Our Cheese?

Our community cheese was never moved, it was simply obscured – hard to see past the institutional pieces. It’s time to make a fresh start; to read the writing on the wall…..

Finally, we would like to take this opportunity to wish all of our readers a very Merry Christmas!

Cormac Russell

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1 Comment
  • Superb, I feel we may be reading this in a few years time and seeing how relevant this cheesey anecdote is. Of course with lessons learned and actioned!

    December 29, 2020 at 12:09 pm

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