Who Moved My Cheese?
By Spencer Johnson
Putnam; 95 pages
When this slim volume made its first appearance 10 years ago, it was vying for attention with Monica Lewinsky and the Clinton scandal. Monica won. But Cheese slowly began to gain traction in corporate circles, even though critics dissed it as an overly broad parable that could be understood by a bright sixth-grader. A year later, it was No. 1 on the New York Times business best-seller list.
A decade later, it still shows up on best-seller lists. Indeed, Who Moved My Cheese? has become the best-selling business book ever, with more than 22 million copies sold worldwide in 37 languages. That's bigger than Good to Great and In Search of Excellence, case-study-laden books that examine corporate success in detail. There is a cult of Cheese, populated by readers (some of them CEOs) who extol the virtues of the book and claim that it has changed their workplace and even their personal life. "I love that book!" says Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and a strategy consultant for a number of FORTUNE 500 companies. "I use it constantly." The book helps him teach companies how to anticipate change.
But all is not quiet in Cheddar City. Cheese also ranks as one of the most despised books. It has been castigated as obvious, insulting. Many of its critics are people who have had copies of Cheese forced on them by overzealous bosses, sometimes even as they were let go. (Which means next year could be a big one for Cheese.) Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip and a chronicler of cubicle life, says, "Maybe a hundred people have suggested I mock it--which I have done." Others have parodied the book (Who Cut the Cheese? and Who Stole My Cheese?!!).
So, what is this tiny tome that provokes such big reactions? It is a parable that can be read in 45 minutes by a multi-tasking minion. There are two "Littlepeople" and two mice. All of them live in a maze. For a time, they have an abundance of cheese to eat (i.e., whatever they want in life). One day, though, the cheese disappears. The mice (Sniff and Scurry) instinctively understand that the paradigm has shifted--they need to adapt and look for cheese in a different place. So they do, and they find New Cheese. The humans are more resistant to change. Hem, the tale's dunderhead, indignantly bellows, "Who moved my cheese?" and refuses to accept reality. Haw too is initially resistant but comes to understand that he has to leave his comfort zone to survive and thrive. Voilà! New Cheese awaits him.
You get the message. Embrace change: it is inevitable. Go with the flow. But Eric Abrahamson, a business-school professor at Columbia University, says the theory is full of holes: "It's a one-size-fits-all approach. There's not much here from the point of view of the recipients of the changes." The problem, he says, is that some employees have been burned out by too much corporate change: layoffs, restructuring, mergers; the cheese never stops moving. That's not a paradigm shift. It's management bereft of ideas.