Steve Fenton

Can you patronise people into change?

Who Moved My CheeseThere is a well known management book named ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ by Dr Spencer Johnson. This is a book that has sold in large numbers and has on countless occasions been used as some kind of patronising change-truncheon to force employees to embrace some organisational change.

While I have no strong opinion on the book’s message (change is going to happen whether you like it or not) I do have an immense problem with the use of a story that sounds like it was written for children to deliver the message. In my experience, using children’s stories to spread a message is popular in religious brainwashing, not in normal work life.

The book cleverly starts with an anecdote. The anecdote picks out someone who said they didn’t really get anything from the book and points out how they are the stupid character you are going to read about. This is a clever bit of pre-conditioning. If you don’t like the book, you must be a chump.

After “anecdote part one” we get the children’s story. Two mice and two tiny people are used to characterise everyone you work with. You are either brainless mice who sniff out change and take fast action (go you), or you are a stuck-in-the-past moaner who can’t stand change. The book wants you to be the character who cleverly uses his brain to learn to accept change.

The cheese metaphor gets stretched beyond any sensible level in this book, with cheese representing your work life and your personal life.

I don’t have a problem with change. I work in an industry where you have to change, or risk going past your sell-by date. Perhaps the fact that I already exhibit a healthy anticipation and acceptance of change contributes to my hateful reaction to the book. I don’t think this is just a case of preaching to the converted though.

When a doctor is dealing with an adult, he doesn’t give them a teddy-bear and ask them to point to where it hurts. If your doctor did this to you, you would probably feel a bit uncomfortable. This is what this book does. It talks down so much that the only people who won’t take offence are simpletons or children (very young children). And thus, I reverse the stroke. If you like ‘Who Moved My Cheese’, you must be simple.

If your organisation is going through a major change, sit down with the people who work for you and discuss it with them like adults. Don’t push them a self-help book for the emotionally under-developed.

The book is available on Amazon for one single penny. I don’t recommend spending this much on it.

Footnote: if you want to read a serious book about change that doesn’t rely on stretching a childish metaphor, but instead supplies real examples and techniques, please read Switch by Dan and Chip Heath, rather than Who Moved My Cheese.

Giant Wheels (of cheese) photograph by Bradley Gordon licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Written by Steve Fenton on