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Who Moved My Cheese: A Review

by Jerald W. Young, Ph.D.
Center for Stable Change, Inc.

Brief Summary of the Story
Who Moved My Cheese tells the story of two mice and two "little humans" who live in a maze and one day are faced with change: someone moves their cheese. The non analytical and nonjudgmental mice just want cheese and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. The more complex little humans have trouble letting go of how things used to be and are afraid to go out into the unknown maze and try to find more cheese.

The moral of the story: we need to change our attitude about change and become more like Sniff and Scurry, the mice. Only then can we anticipate change on the horizon and go forth and successfully adjust to it when it arrives, rather than Hem-ing and Haw-ing ourselves to death. We are told to anticipate change, let go of the old, and do what you would do if you were not afraid.

(Note: the story is told by one member of a group of old friends returning for their high school reunion. Their dialogue precedes and follows the story proper. Their comments provide a real world context within which the author interprets the meaning of the story.)

The Book's Contributions
The main contribution Who Moved My Cheese makes is highlighting the importance of one's attitude toward change when dealing with resistance to change. We must find the potential for good in the change if we are to deal with it successfully. Also laudatory is the book's pointing out that such emotion-based issues as fear of the future and letting go of the past are central to decreasing resistance to change. Moreover, by emphasizing attitude, fear, and letting go, the book correctly locates resistance to change as a process active within each individual. In addition, implicit in some of the examples given by the reunion group, resistance to change in the workplace is, at its heart, an individual issue also.

Comments
Reading Who Moved My Cheese is like being invited to dinner, getting served only one delicious appetizer, then being asked to leave. It makes promises of great things to come, but never delivers. We are left with the bittersweet reaction of "that tasted good but is that all there is?" That is, it sounds great, but how do I do it?

1. The book's relevance to resistance to change: Attitude, fear, & letting go.
Who Moved My Cheese talks about 3 of the 22 primary elements required to dissolve resistance to change (see Table below entitled, Comparative Matrix for Book Reviews). Namely, it states the necessity for taking responsibility for our attitude toward change. It also infers that we should overcome our fears of the unknown and let go of the past.

However the book implies that if we look for the potential good in a change, then we will not be afraid and will be able to let go. This is not how humans work. The future is unknown, by definition. Knowing that the future could turn out to be good does not erase the possibility that it could also turn out bad. As long as we entertain the possibility that an undesirable outcome could result from a change, we will experience resistance to change caused by fear.

Also, letting go of the status quo is not a simple rational decision. We hold on mainly because of strong non-rational, emotion-based attachments to the good part of the present. Simply "deciding" to let go will not work by itself.

2. Elegant vs. simplistic: Just change your attitude.
A fine line exists between an "elegant" solution and a simplistic one. This book crosses that line. It would be nice if dissolving resistance to change could be reduced to "change your attitude," but it can't. Changing one's attitude about change is a necessary condition for success, but not a sufficient condition for success by itself. My work has identified 21 additional issues that must be dealt with in order to dissolve resistance to change (see Table below entitled, Comparative Matrix for Book Reviews).

The book implies changing our attitude toward change and focusing on the potential for good is all we need to do. Our experiences with change in our own lives, both personal and at work, tell us there is more to it than that. Is getting your brother-in-law to admit that smoking can cause cancer sufficient for him to give up smoking?

3. No concrete suggestions for how to adjust to change: The Nike solution - Just Do It.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book is the glaring lack of specific instructions for taking action. It states the need to change our attitude without giving any concrete suggestions for how to do it. It infers the central role fear plays in maintaining resistance to change, but does not explain how to eliminate fear or let go of how things are.

We're told to change our attitude about change. Focus on the good. However, when we are immersed in the emotional "whitewater" of change (as Ken Blanchard says in the preface), just how are we supposed to do this? This is not addressed except in the superficial prescription to "Just Do It."

We are told we should be more like the non analytical and nonjudgmental mice-just sniff it out and take action. For anyone who has agonized over changing careers, ending a relationship, or any other life transition, it is clear that simply taking the action of letting go of the status quo and dissolving the fears of the future are easier said than done. The prescription to "Just Do It" just doesn't do it.

4. Lack of explanatory power makes its usefulness brittle.
"Just Do It or Fail" seems to be the books motivational theme. In its rush to have us "Just Do It," the book glosses over exactly how humans function in real life change situations. It asks readers to adopt a non-analytical, non-judgmental posture and just take action-any action-presumably based on faith that author's prescriptions are right. No effort is made to enlighten readers to what to look for when under pressure to change, so they could presumably make informed decisions about the appropriate action to take.

It simply says that change happens and the best thing to do is to take action when it does. And, seemingly, leave the thinking to other, more qualified people.

5. The illusion of a "quick fix" invites well-intentioned mayhem.
The book's fanciful nature tells the story in absolute terms and tempts readers to conclude that a change in one's attitude toward change is sufficient to guarantee a successful change project. Voilà! A "quick fix."

For managers under pressure to lead a change initiative, with all the uncertainties that entails, the book can prepare the ground for well-intentioned misapplications of its conclusions. What is the book's apparent formula for change leadership success? 1. Read the book. 2. Change your attitude. 3. Get with the program. 4. And those who don't, get fired, as his narrator in the reunion meeting relates.

The message of the book, along with its huge sales figures, can be used as a rationale to short-circuit the more time consuming, emotionally demanding job of managing the "people problems" of change. But only by attending to the details of the "people problems" and dissolving the barriers to their support for positive change, can a change leader craft a change initiative that will stick.

Conclusion
Reading "Cheese" is like reveling in the warm afterglow of a motivational speech or entertaining seminar which, the next day, dims to puzzlement over "where did all the substance go?" Then you begin to wonder if maybe the substance did not go anywhere, but that the substance wasn't quite as substantive as you originally thought.

 

Our goal in reviewing books on change is to determine how well the book provides the reader with the practical, "nuts and bolts" for actually dissolving resistance to change in the "real world." To that end, the matrix below compares each book with the specific issues that must be addressed in detail if any effort to reduce or eliminate resistance is to be successful. These 22 issues are explained in detail as topics of discussion between the change leader and the person resisting in J.W. Young, Me? Change? Not Now. Not Ever. How to Dissolve Hard-Core Resistance to Change in the Workplace, (Editorial Annex, 2003).

Comparative Matrix for Book Reviews

22 Critical Discussion Topics for Dissolving Resistance to Change
(from J.W. Young, Me? Change? Not Now. Not Ever!)
Me? Change? Not. Now. Not Ever! (2003) J.W. Young Who Moved My Cheese? (1998) S. Johnson      
Clarify Goals of the Change        
Accept Ambivalence        
Find Stability in the Change        
Build Confidence from Past Successes        
Find Direction from Personal Principles        
Obtain Courage from Hope        
Get Reassurance from Gratitude        
Take Responsibility for Your Thoughts        
Take Responsibility for Your Attitude      
Take Responsibility for Social Support        
Identify Your Fears of the Future        
Dissolve Your Fears of the Future      
Identify Routine Losses        
Identify Turning Point Losses        
Release Routine Losses      
Release Turning Point Losses        
Identify the Villains        
Forgive the Villains        
Take Time to Recover        
Remove the Logical Barriers        
Determine the Pros and Cons        
Respond with Integrity        
           
How to do it is described in detail.
Stated, but with no detailed instructions for how to do it.
Inferred, but not explicitly stated.

 

©2003 The Center for Stable Change, Inc.
 email: JY@StableChange.com


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