On a number of occasions, I’ve been asked to come into a business in crisis and help turn it around. The first thing I usually do is break out a little book called Who Moved My Cheese? and ask all the relevant personnel to read it. Who Moved My Cheese? is largely about two characters grappling with the necessity of change, and it paints a picture of what happens when we dig in our heels instead.
The book, written by Dr. Spencer Johnson, is more than a little well-known, having spent nearly five years on the New York Times business bestseller list, but it isn’t without its harsh critics. One such person called it “the classic of downsizing propaganda,” and famous cartoonist Scott Adams belittled it as a “patronising message for the proletariat to acquiesce.”
While I don’t hold those opinions against their owners, I do think of the book differently. Valuing change is just as important for the people running a business as it is for anyone they may need to let go. That’s never been more true than it is in the current era of constant, widespread disruption — especially now, with the pandemic causing chaos and uncertainty to reign supreme. Outside of business, too, the ability to embrace change rather than fight it has been of great benefit to many people over these last 12 months. What some will inevitably see as patronising, in other words, others see as encouraging and fortifying.
My own story about “finding the cheese” is never far from my mind. It starts on the day I turned 30, which was wet and cold. It was the last day I played competitive football.
It might have turned out differently had my club been winning games, but we weren’t. Coxhoe were at the bottom of the league table and going nowhere. At times we’d struggle to get 11 players for a game. Commitment, confidence, proper coaching — they all seemed little more than castles in the sky, and I decided to hang up my boots for good. There was just no sense in risking injury when the returns had so significantly diminished.
Without being tempted to return to playing, I could admit I missed it quite a lot. Football was my freedom; the only thing other than family that took me away from work. I didn’t exactly wallow in self-pity, but if I thought about it, I’d catch myself wishing things could go back to the way they’d been before, even while knowing they couldn’t. Who moved my cheese, I couldn’t help thinking.
Only a couple of years went by before I figured out where it was (the proverbial cheese). The opportunity arose to become manager for my former club, and I accepted. Football was back in my life — it just looked a little different than it had before. To make it truly enjoyable, though, I also needed to get the team itself to see that the cheese wasn’t sitting still.
I pushed hard to change the culture inside of the club and luckily had players willing to embrace that. No more going out on Fridays before a match, no more missing training or skipping warm ups, and no more doubting that things would ever change. In a way, it was a simple strategy — just do the opposite of what the previous management had done. It paid off, and we went from the bottom of the league to the top, winning it twice in five years. We all worked together and “found the cheese.”
Now, as the whole world nervously settles into what’s being called a “new normal,” it’s a perfect time to ask ourselves what’s worth keeping in our grasp and where clinging on might actually be counterproductive. And for my part, patronising or not, I’m going to keep handing out copies of Who Moved My Cheese?