Mar 122010


who moved my cheese

Who Moved My Cheese? is a perennial favourite and oft-cited book dealing with change management and perception. Having just re-read The One Minute Manager – written by the author Spencer Johnson and his co-writer Kenneth Blanchard who supplies a foreword here – picking up this book was of even more interest to me. This book is a short and an easy read given its many images, compact text and larger font.

It is not difficult to understand the many scornful reviews of this book. Change is an important concept and a reality. The book makes valuable points regarding the notion and its inevitability. Much of the parable and its lessons, which are simply put, but are anything but, are true and the stuff that make or break companies and people. Having said that, the writer’s simplification and quite one-sided take on the world of change is shocking and rather insolent.

Yes, change might be (and is) everywhere, but it should not be a self-fulfilling prophecy and a crutch – or metaphor for – irrationally explaining away anything and everything. Companies/societies/families and their respective leaders/politicians/heads have responsibilities and one of those is guidance and disciplined change or, better yet, improvement and pertinence. It is a wonder that the metaphorical characters receive no guidance or signposts. It is as if the author is advocating a free for all laissez-faire regime where anything goes and no responsibility is expected of those whose positions, experience and remuneration is based on management and assistance. Worse, the non-thinking mice are lauded, while the analytical ‘little men’ are derided. While not seeing or expecting change is indeed dire, and not reacting to it is worse, criticizing the thinking men is taking things one step too far. Spencer Johnson suggests Hem And Haw should think less and be more animalistic like Sniff and Scurry when in ‘The Maze.’ It is odd and, to use hyperbole, reminiscent of the behaviour seen in fraud and failures like Global Crossing, Adelphia and Enron where everyone did as they were told and did not give it a single thought. After all, ‘change happens’ these folk probably were thinking (or weren’t). Even the markets know that too much change is bad as evidenced by corporations fleeing revolutions or stock markets plunging in the face of change for its own eternal sake.

Let us be careful, Who Moved My Cheese? has a commonsensical idea and is correct in its insistence that people like their ‘cheese’ and hold on more firmly the more of it they have. This indeed is a recipe for future failure. It is what we would call behaving like a fossil, but there is no guarantee a better cheese is available elsewhere, or contrary to what the book claims, something else will be discovered… just by virtue of a mindless search. It is offensive to say that employees, workers, citizens should not expect any “benefits” as per page thirty-eight. That is both contrary to logic and unfair to people who have built a society or made a company what it is. Without a carrot, no one will bite after all. What does make sense is page forty three’s reminder that that one needs to stay sharp, adapt and not lose his or her edge. Doing the same thing over and over is indeed dangerous in most circumstances. What I certainly liked about the message was that one should not be afraid. What would one do if he were not afraid?

Humans have learnt to analyze and hopefully re-analyze as a learnt behaviour that is conducive to survival. Most of our learned behaviour stems from millennia of adapting to conditions and the instinct to survive. Even mice do the same despite the author’s metaphor to the contrary. It is only after such a process that one can approach change. And one option might be to not go on a search when no supporting evidence exists that setting out would be desultory, contrary to rational thought or the opposite of the lessons of experience. “Movement in a new direction” might fulfil the promise of new cheese or might lead to a drop off the cliff.

Not to belabour the point, but having read the book one remains unconvinced of the absolute supremacy of one option over the other. Remaining static, stationary and unimproved is not fruitful. Making changes for the sake of changing and doing so out of habit or as a way of hiding the actual reasons behind an occurrence is also disingenuous. Change is a fact, will happen and can, and often is, for the better, yet promoting it for its own sake or as a pretext is dishonest and that is where Who Moved My Cheese? goes too far.

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