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Storytelling In The News: #162

A review of "Who Moved My Cheese?

A book by Spencer Johnson

May 27, 2004

Business fiction is a big part of the bookselling marketplace, and Squirrel Inc is only the latest example. I'll be on a panel on June 5, 2004, at the Book Expo of America in Chicago, discussing the emergence of business fiction. The panel will be chaired by Hardy Green of BusinessWeek.

It will be discussing how and why did business fiction emerge? Where will it lead?

Over the coming days, I will be reviewing some of the best-selling books, and also some of the more interesting books in the genre. (as in other parts of the book market, "best-selling" does not correlate closely with "most interesting".) Today I start with the blockbuster, Who Moved My Cheese?

The dominance of Who Moved My Cheese?

When we approach Spencer Johnson's Who Moved My Cheese? we are confronting, not so much a book, as a financial phenomenon. The mathematics are staggering:

Rank: Cheese is currently #2 on BusinessWeek's "Long-Running Best ellers". Published in 1998, this slender tale continues to sit triumphant at or near the top of the best-selling business books, reflecting sales amounting to many millions. The quantity and the endurance of its popularity have no equal in business books.

Size: The book itself is a mere 94 pages in very large print. It amounts to some 10,000 words, comprising a fable concerning two mice and two littlepeople of 7,000 words, which is nested in a frame story of some 3,000 words.

Price: The price of the book – an extraordinarily expensive US$19.95 – has nothing to do recompensing the author for the labor involved in writing it or the cost to the publisher of producing such a meager physical object. It has all to do with milking to the maximum a market that is apparently indifferent to cost.

Question: When we are dealing with a project that has generated something that must be in excess of $100 million for its sponsors, we feel, as we feel in the presence of a Bill Gates or a Tom Clancy, a mixture of awe and envy that something so ridiculously simple could have generated so much money.

If nothing else, the sheer scale of the phenomenon calls for some explanation.

The Cheese fable itself

The Cheese fable itself is artlessly banal. Four characters live in a maze. There are two mice: Sniff, who smells change early, and Scurry, who rushes off into action. There are two “littlepeople”: Hem, who denies and resists change as he fears that it will lead to something worse, and Haw, who learns to adapt in time when he sees that changing leads to something better. They all enjoy plentiful cheese at Cheese Station C, but one day, the supply vanishes. The two mice don’t think much about it. They quickly adapt and find new cheese. Hem and Haw however take some time to adapt. Hem is hostile to change and resists doing anything about the loss of the cheese, apart from futile action like knocking a hole in the wall. Eventually Haw decides to set out and find new cheese. As he goes on his search, he writes on the walls of the maze slogans of stunning banality, such as:

Having cheese makes you happy (page 30)

Movement in a new direction helps you find new cheese (page 54)

Hem tries to imagine what new cheese might be like and, lo and behold, he comes across Cheese Station N, which is stocked with an abundant supply of New Cheese. Hem comes to see not only that he should have realized sooner that the Old Cheese was not only drying up but also wasn’t smelling so good. He also sees that the New Cheese is better and more abundant than the Old Cheese, and that he is now Happy. As the book ends, Haw hears someone coming and wonders whether it might finally be Hem, coming to find the New Cheese. That’s pretty much it. Characterization is non-existent. Setting is noticeable for its absence. Plot lacks any genuine conflict. The ending is obvious from the outset. Both mice and the littlepeople are presented as genderless. Given the worthlessness of the story as a story, any value must reside in the intended metaphor, which is discussed to some extent in the frame story.

The frame story

The frame story is set in Chicago, where several former classmates have gathered for a reunion. Angela remarks that a lot has changed. Nathan who joined his family company is worried by change. Carlos who was the captain of the football team says that people resist because they fear change. Michael says he had difficulty with change until he heard the Cheese story. He says that he overcame his annoyance “at the obvious simplicity of the story” to perceive he was “really annoyed at (him)self for not see the obvious and doing what works when things change.” He says he saw the four characters as various parts of myself. He decides in future to act like Haw.

The book closes with a continuation of the frame story, involving a discussion by the group of the Cheese story, at a level of vapid superficiality that is impossible to satirize.

Carlos, the former football captain, admits that he was like Hem in dealing with business challenges. Others remark that unwanted changes had happened to them and to others. Nathan discusses problems in their family business that they didn’t foresee and had difficulty with coping with – he was like Hem. He was resisting change. He wonders whether he should have been more proactive and try to move his own Cheese. He sees that the Sniffs, Scurrys, Hems and Haws in a firm need to be treated differently.

Sniffs are good at innovation.

Scurrys are good at implementing new visions, provided that they don’t scurry off in the wrong direction.

Hems had to be shown how the change would work to their advantage.

Haws were open-minded and can help paint a picture of the new cheese.

Laura points out that they are all afraid of change, but frightened to admit it. Jessica recounts how her encyclopedia company failed to adapt to technological change. Frank realizes that he would have been better if he had moved with the Cheese a lot sooner in his life. Angela notes that Haw learned to laugh at his fear and so got to find the New Cheese. Richard realizes that not only his company needs to change: he needs to change his behavior too. Becky tells of an unwelcome change she faced that eventually turned out for the best.

Michael says that the Cheese story itself helped his firm have vocabulary for discussing change: with the Hems personified in the story, they were easier to discuss and deal with. It also helped in his firm, he says, that no one wanted to be identified as a Hem.

The author, Spencer Johnson, closes the book with the lucrative thought that the Cheese story works best when everyone in the organization knows the story.

The core messages of Cheese

Who then is buying this insipid fiction? A core of the sales appears to come from large firms that are apparently following the advice on the last page and buying the book in truckloads for their employees. The core thoughts of the book could certainly be attractive to some managements:

Employees must learn to live with change and should believe that it will always turn out for the best.

The best employees are like mice – Sniff and Scurry – who don’t even stop to think about why the change is happening: they just instantly adapt to it, either sniffing it out or running after it.

Those who resist and argue against change like Hem are likely to end up by starving.

One should value employees like Haw, who find ways to go along with change and eventually like it. Without any help from the management, they persuade themselves to laugh at disruptive and explanation-less change and .

The production system is firmly in the control of “the management”. The creation of Cheese Stations C and N is outside the purview and influence of those who live in the maze of the modern workplace.

Those who make important decisions stay remote from those affected by the decisions. Thus decisions about whether Cheese Stations C or N should be open or closed are made independent of the creatures living in the maze.

Ultimately, the message is clear: just trust the system – everything will work out for the best!

Such a picture of the workplace in which employees passively adapt to changes decided by others would certainly be a convenient one for managers if they could get their employees to fall for it. One can therefore understand why companies have been almost unbelievably eager to buy this bland and flavorless tale for their hapless employees.

Robert Davis, President of Chevron Chemical, is quoted in the blurbs as not only having bought it for everyone at Chevron, but also for his wife, his “close friends” and his “clergy”, apparently with the idea that they should also go along with this philosophy of supinely accepting whatever change comes along.

Cheese’s possible attraction to individual readers

Yet surely some individual readers must buy the book? Surely, some individuals must actually read and like the book; otherwise this mammoth sales machine could hardly continue in perpetual motion. Who are these readers? I have been unable to locate any of them among my colleagues and friends, but I believe they must exist. What can be the possible attraction of the book to these individual readers?

Endorsements: It is hard to think that many can have been taken in Dan Rather’s endorsement of the book as a “masterpiece!” What, if anything, can Rather have been thinking when he allowed his name to be associated with such an inane remark? The only sense in which Cheese can be regarded as a masterpiece is as a piece of financial engineering for the author and the publisher, but Rather’s comment can hardly be referring to this.

Curiosity: No doubt some, like me, buy the book out of curiosity, simply to find out what the Cheese phenomenon is about, but this must only be a fraction of the gargantuan sales.

A story: Some business readers, their minds numbed and dazed by endless abstractions and PowerPoint presentations, are perhaps attracted to the extraordinary phenomenon of -- a story! Even an appallingly boring story. This can hardly be the main explanation, since other much better written stories have not done nearly as well as Cheese.

A message of hope: Some unsophisticated readers may even feel nourished by the message of optimism and hope that everything will work out for the best, regardless of the immense evidence to the contrary, and may enjoy the book in the same way that vast numbers of people appear to enjoy personal advice books about improving their love life, or losing weight, or becoming a zillionaire, or finding truth in astrology.

Solace: Some naïve readers may also find solace in the philosophy that everything will turn out for the best, if only they learn to accept that they can’t do anything to change the basic framework in which things are happening, and get on with adjusting to the change, whatever it happens to be. Like the final song in the movie, The Life of Brian, when Brian is hanging, crucified, from the cross and sings the amusing but cynical song, “Look on the bright side of life,” fans of Cheese may decide to look on the bright side of life, no matter bad things get. In this, they may embody a fear of genuine freedom to think about and decide what is happening in their lives and why.

Hidden depths: Presumably some, like Michael in the frame story, are puzzled by the annoying simplicity of the story, and convince themselves that Cheese has some deeper, metaphorical meaning, even if they have difficulty in explaining what it might be. If one can see the universe in a grain of sand, perhaps one can see the meaning of life in Cheese?

Is this all? I'm not sure. These elements are significant but together they can hardly account for the scale and endurance of the Cheese phenomenon, even allowing for the massive corporate sales. The underlying attraction of the book to individual readers therefore still remains something of a mystery.

The value of the Cheese advice

Some executives are quoted in the book as being enthusiastic about Cheese’s content. Robert Beck, Executive VP for Bank of America, says that “the ideas in this book are vital.”

To some readers, it might seem odd even to suggest that Cheese contains any ideas at all. But slender as the content is, there are some ideas there, and parts of the Cheese message are even correct, if not exactly novel, let alone earth-shattering:

Change is inevitable.
There is little point in crying over spilt milk.
Other parts of the Cheese message are not merely questionable. They are wrong. Thus as one surveys the daily business news, it is fairly obvious that:
Change doesn’t always work out for the best.
Change isn’t always outside our control.
Those in control of “the system” do not always have at heart the interests of those their decisions affect.
Considerable vigilance is required if bad management is not to become much worse.
Managers who stay remote from those who are affected by their decisions are likely to make bad decisions that will eventually lead to disaster for the decision-makers.

In disseminating the opposite viewpoint, Cheese can be seen as an instrument of unhealthy corporate propaganda about the beneficent way the world is organized, and the desirability of passivity in the face of change.

Bottom line: A philosophy of submission and anti-leadership

The weakness of Cheese, apart from its mediocrity both as a fable and as a piece of literature, is its misconceived philosophy of leadership, or rather one might call a philosophy of anti-leadership.

For instance, Cheese would be of no use to those responsible for closing down Cheese Station C or opening up Cheese Station N. Cheese is no help to those who have to decide what changes to introduce and what changes to reject. Business literature is full of examples of bankrupt firms that enthusiastically followed changes that everyone else was following. Any effort by those in charge of “the system” to take the Cheese message seriously would lead to certain disaster.

The central question for leaders is not one of persuading themselves to go along with inevitable change, but rather one of deciding which changes to accept and which to reject. By falsely characterizing the issues of change, Cheese does not do the world a service.

More seriously, by implying that the workforce should be infinitely docile, flexible, and trusting, Cheese will hardly prepare leaders in organizations to the challenges of dealing with today’s employees. Today’s workforce not only has instant access to global information about what is happening and why, but also increasingly wants to have a say in what changes are accepted and which rejected. The time when CEOs could simply give instructions about what should be done and expect that their orders would unquestionably carried out are over. Today, leaders have to persuade, not only by changing minds but more importantly, winning hearts. For this central task of leadership, Cheese is not only of no help: it is deeply misleading.

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