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Revisiting change via Hem and Haw

Change is hard. Systemic change in an organization - be it a school, a business, or a nonprofit is even harder.


And although change is hard, there comes a time in most organizations where some change is needed. One only has to remember the well-known book by Spencer Johnson, “Who Moved my Cheese” to get a glimpse of all the ways we humans or (little people) respond to the need to change.


If you remember in the book, there were 4 characters: 2 mice Sniff and Scurry and 2 little people Hem and Haw. Each had their own way of responding to the missing cheese that had been a steady source of food for so long. The mice with their little brains simply worked together to sniff out and locate a new source of food. While the little people with their “big” brains reacted with disbelief, anger and in the case of Haw, total reluctance to change.


Most of us are probably a lot like Haw. It takes us a while to accept that the situation in front of us is different and requires us to act in a different way. But, eventually, we come around and if we are lucky even get a chance to laugh at ourselves for being so slow to accept the change.


In our organizations we likely have all four of these little characters. Let’s take a closer look at how each of them might respond to the changes being brought about by a new (or renewed) effort around diversity, race, equity or inclusion.

  • Sniff: He or she is the person who draws-in, inhales or exudes change. Possibly any kind of change! Often they may be the first person to say “yes” - a necessary ally or leader energized by all of the possibilities inherent in change.

  • Scurry: This might be the person who just wants to get started…the “action, action, action” kind of person. They’re great at generating energy and momentum but might not be as concerned about being thoughtful or strategic in the many needed steps of change.

  • Hem: Awww Hem. A person like Hem is not a fan of change. They may be upset, overwhelmed or simply in shock. Fear is likely a big factor as is a desire to stay comfortable - the old saying, “what you know is better than what you don’t know”. A colleague like Hem is difficult at best and dangerous or damaging at worst.

  • Haw: Likekly our organizations have a lot of Haws. They may be resistant to change at first, but eventually come around. Rather than blaming someone for the change that is coming, (like Hem might do) they see they may have had a role to play in role in the situation that precipitate the change. It’s not that there is no fear in the Haws, it’s that the fear has been tempered by visions of opportunity.

Now that we’ve identified some of the possible responses of each of these characters, a couple questions remain, “what are some of the first steps we take” and “what do we do with these people???” Lucky for us, the answers are the same!

As an organizer, I’ve been taught that relationships are the key to change. Understanding what really makes a person “tick” is key. And you do that by getting to know them. Who are your Sniffs? Your Hems? Your Haws? In a small organization this might be pretty simple, but there are ways to do that in a large organization as well. Organizers call this a power analysis…taking the time to identify who are your allies, your neutrals, your leaders, your opponents.


Once you’ve identified and grouped these people you begin to identify and test your leaders. By testing your leaders, you begin to suss out the Sniffs from the Haws…as mentioned earlier the Sniffs may say “yes” early on but also may be saying “yes” to a lot of things. As a result their follow through suffers. A test can be as simple as asking someone to set up a meeting with someone else or reading an article. It lets you know how serious or committed the person is.


Once you have your leaders (often called thought leaders) you’re on your way. You have the team of folks around you to strategize with, to consult, to conspire with. And of course, you’ll need to deal with the Sniffs, Hems, etc. along the way. And while the Sniffs can be useful, too much time spent on the Hems can be dangerous. You’ll need to find a way to deal with them…but that is a different blog!


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