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April 9, 2008

Filed under: culture»corporate

The Cheese Stands Alone

I don't actually remember why I started thinking about "Who Moved My Cheese?" the other day. I wish I hadn't. It may be the worst book ever written.

I know what you're thinking: "Thomas, the worst book ever? Worse than Atlas Shrugged?" Yes. "Worse than Bill O'Reilly's children's books?" Maybe. "Even worse than Piers Anthony?"

...well, let's not get crazy. But it's still pretty bad.

Here's the basic plot of the book, which (as far as I can tell) pioneered the "management fable" genre: there are two mice and two "little people" in a maze, and every day they eat cheese from a huge pile (the significance of the cheese is never fully explained, but one assumes that it represents some kind of business/personal success). One day, the cheese is gone. The mice immediately go sprinting off to find new cheese, while the people sit around and gripe about missing cheese, until finally one of them gets up the nerve to break from his routine and head out looking for the new cheese store. He eventually finds it, and along the way pens a lot of vapid cheese-themed aphorisms about his experiences with change.

I had a manager at the Bank who otherwise I respected greatly, but who nonetheless during one of our retreats made us read Who Moved My Cheese? and I've never quite forgiven her for it. For one thing, the book is an obvious metaphor for layoffs and being forced to work harder for the same pay, which nobody finds amusing and most of us considered more than a little ominous, especially since Wolfowitz wasn't very keen on our vice presidency.

For another, you couldn't possibly pick a worse audience for WMMC? than the World Bank, which is filled with left-leaning intellectuals--although, granted, anyone with the slightest hint of rebellion in their soul should be able to figure out the story's flaws. When they asked for questions, my teammates and I immediately began pointing out the enormous holes in the fable: forget the cheese, how do we get out of the maze? Who's moving the cheese, and how do we get them to stop, or at least hold them accountable and tell us where they're going to move it next? What if I'm lactose intolerant? The whole point is to convince workers that they must react to the giddy whims of their superiors--indeed, that it's empowering to do so--instead of giving them the impression that they might be able to control their own lives. It's unsurprising that most people find this approach unpleasant, especially when delivered as a pseudo-fairy tale.

In other words, if the condescension (who are the "little people" again, kemosabe?) doesn't get you, the poor writing will. The biggest sin of the book isn't that it's a thinly-disguised metaphor for class suppression, but that it's so very, very unconvincing. You would think, since they've been doing it for so many years, that middle management types would have a better justification for misfortune than "shut up and work harder." If they do, it's not selling any books.

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