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Communication Project Magazine

Volume 4.1 Winter 2001

Who Moved My Cheese? Is Not Enough

A Review by Michael Tull
©2001 The Communication Project, Inc.

Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life, by Spencer Johnson. 94 pp. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998.


A couple of years ago, I was given a copy of Who Moved My Cheese? Like The One Minute Manager, which Johnson wrote with Kenneth Blanchard (1982), Who Moved My Cheese? is a well-marketed book with some powerful lessons. But somehow, I’m disturbed.

I read the The One Minute Manager years ago when it first came out, acknowledged the "one minute" idea as extreme, but thought it a clever technique to get managers’ attention, and it did. Some took the one minute seriously and criticized the book on that basis. I felt it offered valuable and important management techniques.

I have a different take on Who Moved My Cheese? I read it once, quickly, and felt there were some interesting concepts, but simplistic, and put it on my shelf. The book has been brought to my attention again and again by a diverse group of clients who excitedly asked if I had read it. It seemed the best thing since sliced bread. What had I missed? So I reread the book, and remain troubled with the message it sends.

Although I regard its lessons as valuable, it oversimplifies the process we each go through when confronted with change. This is not Johnson’s fault. His objective, it seems, was to deliver a simple message that would make an impact. He has accomplished this and has sold millions of books in the process. I don’t begrudge him his success. What I fear is that as the book is handed out to entire organizations – and it is – management and staff may become lulled by the simple story and consequently fail to honor the complex, unsettling nature of the change process.

This article raises some issues not dealt with in the book. My objective is to add a dimension to the discussion and encourage further examination of the book’s content and message.


The Story

The book is divided into three parts. The first and last parts involve several former classmates who meet for lunch the day after their high school reunion. They share the changes that each is experiencing in his/her life. One remembers a story about change that he heard and thought valuable. My interest is in this story, a metaphor about change, which is the middle part and majority of the book.

For those few of you who have not read the book, it involves two mice named Sniff and Scurry, and two "littlepeople" named Hem and Haw. They are neighbors who live in a maze and eat only cheese. The cheese represents "what we want in life." As Blanchard writes in the foreword, "Each of us has our own idea of what Cheese is, and we pursue it because we believe it makes us happy." (p. 14)

Briefly, the story goes like this. Every morning Sniff and Scurry and Hem and Haw head over to Cheese Station C, the location in the maze in which they had previously found a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheese. They spend their days eating cheese and sleeping. One day the Cheese is not there. Sniff and Scurry, being uncomplicated creatures, quickly size up the situation and take off in pursuit of more cheese. Hem and Haw have difficulty accepting that their routine has changed and expect the cheese to be replaced by morning. I think you get the idea. The cheese is never replaced.

Eventually Hem realizes that he must take a risk and adventure into the maze for a new source of cheese. He cannot convince Haw that taking action is better than sitting and waiting, so he goes off alone. Through trial and error, he finally finds more cheese, and rejoins Sniff and Scurry who found the supply earlier and are now satisfactorily full. The three of them settle in comfortably. Hem and the mice have learned the lesson, and are ready to move if the situation changes again. At the end of the story, they hear noises and hope that it is Haw who finally realized that he needed to find a new source of cheese.


The Handwriting on the Wall

For those of you who have the book, refresh your memory by rereading the foreword – it outlines the message. Then skip to page 74 where an illustration of a slice of cheese does double duty as a chart board, listing the book’s seven insights about change under the heading "The Handwriting on the Wall."

Change Happens

They Keep Moving The Cheese

Anticipate Change

Get Ready For The Cheese To Move

Monitor Change

Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old

Adapt To Change Quickly

The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese


Move With The Cheese

Enjoy Change!

Savor The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese!

Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again

They Keep Moving The Cheese

These are valuable lessons to incorporate into our work and personal lives. However, if we look closely, the seven lessons can be effectively condensed into three.


Three Lessons for Handling Change

1.  Change is inevitable

Monitor your environment and anticipate it.

2.  Respond to change

Adapt quickly and enjoy the adventure.

3.  Be ready to change again

Don’t be surprised.

1.    Change is inevitable – monitor your environment and anticipate it.

Continuous advances in technology and increasingly competitive markets have made organizational change routine. If you’re one of the few who has not experienced constant change in your organization, be prepared. Stay abreast of changes in your industry or in the business environment in general. For instance, the Internet and e-business technology are changing the way we work. If your company has not yet incorporated these tools, be ready for it.

2.    Respond to change – adapt quickly and enjoy the adventure.

This is the crux of Who Moved My Cheese? and it’s where I take issue with the book. The story offers two choices. Do nothing or adjust. In the world outside of the maze there are two additional alternatives – get more information or leave. Let’s look at these four options.

Do nothing

This non-activity goes along with statements such as, "If we wait long enough, things will return to normal." Based on your experience with the organization, waiting a little longer to see if management is serious about a change might be the right thing to do. However, if the change is real, this strategy would not be very useful. As Haw found out, you can get mighty hungry waiting.

Get more information

You might not like or agree with a change initiative, but try to understand the rationale behind it. Hem and Haw did not have this opportunity. You do. In the spirit of wanting to support the initiative, ask questions to clarify what is expected.


We know that when things change around us in the workplace, we’re expected to adapt. So why don’t we? Even though we might understand the benefits of a change, something holds us back. Before we can move on, it’s important to acknowledge and let go of things of value. These may include: confidence in performing current tasks, comfortable environment, connections with teammates, position status, or job security. Those with an ability to adapt quickly and make a commitment to the change have learned to find value in the new setting.


As an organization changes, it’s important to examine whether it still fills your needs. Some, because of personal circumstances, might have fewer options than others. If leaving is not a realistic choice, accept your decision and find ways to adapt. What you don’t want is for someone else to make the choice for you.

3.    Be ready to change again – Don’t be surprised.

Our highly competitive environment forces organizations into states of constant transition. The way to maintain personal equilibrium and manage stress is to treat change as normal and be prepared for it. Stay resilient and vigilant, recognize new opportunities and take advantage of them when they come.


Understanding Change

Who Moved My Cheese? has had a great circulation and has stimulated discussion and insight. My concern is that the insights mirror the book, and simplify the complexity of change in our personal and business lives. It’s not enough to understand that if our cheese is moved, we better get off our seats and find it. The potential decisions and actions are more diverse. Our responsibility is to fully understand the change and what is expected. Then we are in a position to move in a direction that supports our personal well-being and growth.

For those interested, the following short list of books will provide a greater understanding of the complexities, tensions, and strategies involved in leading and supporting organizational and personal changes.

Organizational Change
  • Conner, Daryl R., Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail. New York: Villard Books, 1993.
  • Feldman, Mark L., and Michael F. Spratt, Five Frogs on a Log: A CEO’s Field Guide to Accelerating the Transition in Mergers, Acquisitions, and Gut Wrenching Change. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.
  • Gottlieb, Marvin R., and Lori Conkling, Managing the Workplace Survivors: Organizational Downsizing and the Commitment Gap. Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 1995.
  • Karp, H.B., The Change Leader: Using a Gestalt Approach with Work Groups. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer and Jossey-Bass Inc, 1995.
  • Kotter, John P., Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.
Personal Change
  • Foster, Rick and Greg Hicks, How We Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People – Their Secrets, Their Stories. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999.


About the Author

Michael Tull has over twenty years of experience as a consultant, manager, and trainer.  His focus has been planning and implementing strategies and programs that impact group productivity, work quality, and presentation. A Senior Associate with TCPI for over ten years, Mr. Tull has filled many roles.  In addition to being a lead instructor, his contributions include instructional design, data collection, project management, and writing.  Mr. Tull is a member of the Greater New York Organization Development Network and the New Jersey Organization Development Learning Community.  He holds a Masters of Education degree from Columbia University, Teachers College.

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