Should We Let The Cheese Be Moved?

People are often reluctant to mess around with classics. But not always, according to a September 6th article in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge blog. The classic being skewered is Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese (WMMC for short). Here are some excerpts:

With more than 23 million copies in print, Spencer Johnson’s allegorical tale Who Moved My Cheese? is one of the best-selling business books of all time. Even 13 years after its initial publication, the book, whose characters include mice in a maze, still sits at the top of’s Workplace Behavior best-seller list—thanks in part to corporate managers who distribute it to their employees as a lesson in accepting and anticipating change gracefully. But is that really the best message to send?

Harvard Business School Professor Deepak Malhotra thinks not, and he has crafted an allegory with a decidedly un-mousy message. I Moved Your Cheese: For Those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else’s Maze is like WMMC, in that the new business fable also stars a cast of mice. But the similarity ends there.

“I Moved Your Cheese is based on the idea that success in the areas of innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, leadership, and business growth—as well as personal growth—depends on the ability to push the boundaries, reshape the environment, and play by a different set of rules—our own,” says Malhotra. “In the face of established practices, traditional ideas, scarce resources, and the powerful demands or expectations of others, we often underestimate our ability to control our own destiny and overcome the constraints we face—or think we face. I Moved Your Cheese reminds us that we can create the new circumstances and realities we want, but first we must discard the often deeply ingrained notion that we are nothing more than mice in someone else’s maze.”

Like WMMC, this book tells the story of mice who live in a maze. In this case, the main characters are three unique and adventurous mice: Max, Zed, and Big. As we watch their lives unfold and intersect, we discover that instead of just reacting to change and chasing the cheese, each of us has the ability to escape the maze or even reconfigure the maze to our liking. We can create the new circumstances and realities we want, but first we must discard the often deeply ingrained notion that we are nothing more than mice in someone else’s maze. As Zed explains, “You see, Max, the problem is not that the mouse is in the maze, but that the maze is in the mouse.”

In an e-mail interview with Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Malhotra discussed the book..

Q: In the introduction to the book you state, “There are ways in which the message of WMMC is not simply incomplete, but dangerous.” How is the message dangerous? And what would you say to managers who are considering mass-distributing WMMC to their employees?

A: If a manager has thought carefully about the message of WMMC and still wishes to distribute it to his or her employees, I am certainly not going to attempt to interfere with that decision. Every book has useful insights.

But in some ways, the message of WMMC may indeed be dangerous, or at least debilitating, because it promotes the idea that change is inevitably beyond our control, that we shouldn’t waste our time wondering why things are the way they are, and that we should just put our heads down and keep running around the maze chasing after cheese.

Q: Your book seems to be about the possibility of questioning and then effecting change rather than simply accepting it. But for those who don’t see themselves as change agents, do you think there’s a middle ground between blindly accepting change and actively effecting it?

A: In my view, we should really think twice before telling would-be innovators, problem solvers, entrepreneurs, and leaders that instead of wasting their time wondering why things are the way they are, they should simply accept their world as given. But even in situations where things are beyond our control and adapting is the only viable option—that is, even for those whom you refer to as people “who don’t see themselves as change agents”—we should do more than blindly accept our fate. We should still seek to understand why the change was forced on us, how we might exert greater control over our lives or business in the future, whether the goals we are chasing are the correct ones, and what it would take to escape the kinds of mazes in which we are always subject to the designs of others. The book is as much about inspiring us to ask the important questions as it is about taking control of our destinies.

Q: In challenging the common maze analogy, one mouse in your book says to another, “The problem is not that the mouse is in the maze, but that the maze is in the mouse.” What does that mean?

A: What is often holding us back from achieving greater success is not real limitations, but that we have internalized environmental pressures, social norms, and the expectations of other people. The world tells us how things have to be, and we don’t push back enough.

Q: Do you plan to use this book in the classroom? How would you like to see this book used in corporate organizations?

A: In the back of the book, there are notes and discussion questions for educators as well as for managers and executives. I do plan to use the book in the classroom. I think it is a great tool for discussing issues that are covered in a wide range of courses, including leadership, entrepreneurship, power and politics, strategy, and organizational behavior. The value to those who lead or work in corporate organizations may be even more obvious. I have taught and worked with over 10,000 business owners, executives, and managers in the last decade, and in my experience, even smart, hard-working, and well-intentioned people struggle with solving the more vexing problems that business pursuits throw at us. The book is designed not only to inspire individuals who work in organizations to think and do things differently, but also to motivate structured discussions regarding how a team, division, or organization might challenge long-standing assumptions, see the old in new ways, and chart a new path for success.

Q: Why do you think business fables are so popular?

A: That they are easy to read and enjoyable has to be part of the answer. It is also the case that every reader has different needs, and that a fable allows each individual reader to take from the book a message that is uniquely tailored to that person. But there may be another reason. In the field of business, there is rarely an insight or idea that is entirely new. And yet, many great ideas that have been around for a long time have still not been transformed into action by those who lead or work in organizations. What this speaks to is the difference between making a good idea available to an audience, and articulating it in a way that inspires the audience to run with it. A good business fable may do a better job inspiring us to act.


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