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Who moved my cheese?

- A book review by Carl-Henrik Wikman

As my second individual assignment I have chosen to review the book ”Who moved my
cheese?” written by John Spencer. The book was published in 1998 and has been a global
bestseller ever since.
“Who moved my cheese?” is a book that tries to deal with a topic that has been popular
during recent years and that could be summarized as change management. The book’s
audience is both corporations and individuals and it delivers its message with simplicity
and illustrativeness. It is divided into three parts where the second part can be viewed
upon as the centerpiece of the book. We follow four characters, the two mice Sniff and
Scurry, and two liliputs by the name of Hem and Haw who all are in search of cheese in
a maze. Sniff and Scurry do not reflect that much upon life and go about their way with
their search for cheese. Hem and Haw, who think and act more complex, analyze details
and put great value in their quest to find cheese. Once they have found cheese, they
settle in and get comfortable with the situation. The four characters in the book
represent different attitudes toward change among people. Worth mentioning is that
cheese in this book is a metaphor for anything of value to the individual or organization.
It could be happiness in life, high margins for corporations or an increased market share.
The book tries to depict how different people tackle change and thus it becomes
interesting when the characters eventually run out of cheese (a situation of change). All
of them react differently to the situation, with higher correlation between Sniff and
Scurry’s reaction and Hem and Haw’s respectively. Sniff and Scurry do not reflect that
much upon the situation, they realize that the cheese is gone and that they need to find a
new supply, so they scuttle away into the maze in search for new riches. Hem and Haw,
on the other hand, try to rationalize and analyze why the cheese has disappeared. They
have a hard time facing the fact that it is gone and try to blame others for its
disappearance. Eventually, Haw decides he has to follow in Sniff and Scurry’s footsteps
and find a new supply of cheese in order to survive, but it takes him a great deal of time
before doing so. Hem on the other hand, simply will not follow and argues that the
cheese eventually will come back. We get to follow Haw in his search for a new supply of
cheese and along the way he makes some valid observations on how to tackle change.
Haw gives the readers tips like “If you do not change, you become extinct” and “Old
beliefs do not lead you to new cheese”, which might seem like clichés but are presented
in such a way that they are easy to accept. The main point of the book is to acknowledge
the fact that change happens and that individuals as well as organizations need to
anticipate, monitor and adapt to change in order to “survive”. Another important
message is to never grow comfortable with your supply of cheese, and to always be on
the lookout for new cheese.
The book ‘s layout and narrating style is one of its strengths but at the same time
functions as its weakness. The audience of the book is very broad and thus it does not
give specific examples on how to, for example, monitor change. In a managerial aspect, it
would be interesting to know how Spencer relates to the situation, let us say, a manager
of a global company might find himself in regarding change. One of Spencer’s arguments
to tackle change is to “Monitor change” and here I would like to connect to the article
“The five minds of a manager” where Mintzberg and Gosling talk about the “The
worldly mindset” among managers. Mintzberg and Gosling argue that managers of global
companies should get out of the office and visit the sites where their products or services
are produced and consumed thus giving them the ability to see the reality of the business
and predict changes that might approach. This worldly mindset correlates with Spencer’s
idea of monitoring change, but at the same time provides concrete tips on how to
address the issue.
Further on, the book only focuses on soft factors such as how to alter your attitude
towards change. For corporations, hard factors also need to be addressed during
changing times, and this is an area that the book does not deal with. Sirkin et. al (2006)
point out that change management among corporations also need to take into account
hard factors and they develop a model that can be used, called the DICE-model. It
focuses on the four factors duration, integrity, commitment and effort. The authors argue that
to effectively pursue changes in organizations, one need to address both soft and hard
If you look at the book from a perspective of managing an organization, it gives little
concrete advice on how to tackle change but it serves as an efficient tool to alter people’s
mindset regarding change.
Even though “Who moved my cheese” can be criticized for its, to a certain extent,
shallow content it serves very well as an eye-opener for every individual who reads it.
With its simple approach and illustrative layout it plants a seed in the readers mind on
how to approach change and perhaps the most important message of the book is to be
open minded towards change. As Spencer point out, it is very well suited for executives
to give to employees of an organization to make them transform their attitude towards
change. As we all know, change happens and it is unavoidable for any individual to live
through life without having to adapt to change, whether it is a close relative passing
away, or a restructuring of your company.
“The hard side of change management”, Harvard Business Review, Sirkin A, Keenan P,
Jackson A, 2006
“The five minds of a manager”, Harvard Business Review, Minztberg H, Gosling J, 2003
“Who moved my cheese?”, Vermilion, Spencer, John, 1999