With more than 23 million copies in print, Spencer Johnson's allegorical tale Who Moved My Cheese? is one of the best-selling business books of all time. Even 13 years after its initial publication, the book, whose characters include mice in a maze, still sits at the top of Amazon.com's Workplace Behavior best-seller list—thanks in part to corporate managers who distribute it to their employees as a lesson in accepting and anticipating change gracefully. But is that really the best message to send?
Harvard Business School Professor Deepak Malhotra thinks not, and he has crafted an allegory with a decidedly un-mousy message. I Moved Your Cheese: For Those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else's Maze is like Who Moved My Cheese? in that the new business fable also stars a cast of mice. But the similarity ends there.
“In my view, we should really think twice before telling would-be innovators, problem solvers, entrepreneurs, and leaders that instead of wasting their time wondering why things are the way they are, they should simply accept their world as given”
"I Moved Your Cheese is based on the idea that success in the areas of innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, leadership, and business growth—as well as personal growth—depends on the ability to push the boundaries, reshape the environment, and play by a different set of rules—our own," says Malhotra. "In the face of established practices, traditional ideas, scarce resources, and the powerful demands or expectations of others, we often underestimate our ability to control our own destiny and overcome the constraints we face—or think we face. I Moved Your Cheese reminds us that we can create the new circumstances and realities we want, but first we must discard the often deeply ingrained notion that we are nothing more than mice in someone else's maze."
In an e-mail interview with Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Malhotra discussed the book, which was released on September 6.
Carmen Nobel: In the introduction to the book you state, "There are ways in which the message of ['Who Moved My Cheese?'] is not simply incomplete, but dangerous." How is the message dangerous? And what would you say to managers who are considering mass-distributing "Who Moved My Cheese?" to their employees?
Deepak Malhotra: If a manager has thought carefully about the message of WMMC and still wishes to distribute it to his or her employees, I am certainly not going to attempt to interfere with that decision. Every book has useful insights.
But in some ways, the message of WMMC may indeed be dangerous, or at least debilitating, because it promotes the idea that change is inevitably beyond our control, that we shouldn't waste our time wondering why things are the way they are, and that we should just put our heads down and keep running around the maze chasing after cheese.
Q: Your book seems to be about the possibility of questioning and then effecting change rather than simply accepting it. But for those who don't see themselves as change agents, do you think there's a middle ground between blindly accepting change and actively effecting it?
A: In my view, we should really think twice before telling would-be innovators, problem solvers, entrepreneurs, and leaders that instead of wasting their time wondering why things are the way they are, they should simply accept their world as given. But even in situations where things are beyond our control and adapting is the only viable option—that is, even for those whom you refer to as people "who don't see themselves as change agents"—we should do more than blindly accept our fate. We should still seek to understand why the change was forced on us, how we might exert greater control over our lives or business in the future, whether the goals we are chasing are the correct ones, and what it would take to escape the kinds of mazes in which we are always subject to the designs of others. The book is as much about inspiring us to ask the important questions as it is about taking control of our destinies.
Q: In challenging the common maze analogy, one mouse in your book says to another, "The problem is not that the mouse is in the maze, but that the maze is in the mouse." What does that mean?
A: What is often holding us back from achieving greater success is not real limitations, but that we have internalized environmental pressures, social norms, and the expectations of other people. The world tells us how things have to be, and we don't push back enough.
Q: Do you plan to use this book in the classroom? How would you like to see this book used in corporate organizations?
A: In the back of the book, there are notes and discussion questions for educators as well as for managers and executives. I do plan to use the book in the classroom. I think it is a great tool for discussing issues that are covered in a wide range of courses, including leadership, entrepreneurship, power and politics, strategy, and organizational behavior. The value to those who lead or work in corporate organizations may be even more obvious. I have taught and worked with over 10,000 business owners, executives, and managers in the last decade, and in my experience, even smart, hard-working, and well-intentioned people struggle with solving the more vexing problems that business pursuits throw at us. The book is designed not only to inspire individuals who work in organizations to think and do things differently, but also to motivate structured discussions regarding how a team, division, or organization might challenge long-standing assumptions, see the old in new ways, and chart a new path for success.
Q: Why do you think business fables are so popular?
A: That they are easy to read and enjoyable has to be part of the answer. It is also the case that every reader has different needs, and that a fable allows each individual reader to take from the book a message that is uniquely tailored to that person. But there may be another reason. In the field of business, there is rarely an insight or idea that is entirely new. And yet, many great ideas that have been around for a long time have still not been transformed into action by those who lead or work in organizations. What this speaks to is the difference between making a good idea available to an audience, and articulating it in a way that inspires the audience to run with it. A good business fable may do a better job inspiring us to act.
Book Excerpt From i Moved Your Cheese
When a book has sold over twenty million copies, due respect for the opinion of its readers creates an obligation to explain why someone would seek to challenge its central message. I hope to do that, briefly, in these opening pages. The real answer, however, lies in the fable itself.
This book was written—and is meant to be read—as a stand-alone entity. Not surprisingly, however, I've been asked whether it was crafted as a rebuttal to Who Moved My Cheese? (WMMC), or as an extension of it. Or, to put it another way: Am I saying that the message of WMMC is incorrect, or simply incomplete? The answer is both.
For those who are having a hard time dealing with big (or even small) changes in life, WMMC is a compelling read. The book is a useful reminder that we need to accept that change happens, that it may be beyond our control, and that we need to find the strength to move on and adapt. This message is neither incorrect nor trivial. But it is incomplete. Even when adaptation appears to be the only viable option, we should do more than blindly accept—and eagerly adapt to—change. We should seek to understand why the change has been forced on us, how we might exert greater control over our lives in the future, whether the goals we are chasing are the correct ones, and what it would take to escape the kinds of mazes in which we are always subject to the designs of others. In other words, effective adaptation is not enough for success or happiness.
Then there are the ways in which the message of WMMC is not simply incomplete, but dangerous. Perhaps we should think twice before telling others that they would be wise to immediately embrace their limitations. Perhaps we should not suggest to would-be innovators, problem solvers, entrepreneurs, and leaders that instead of wasting their time wondering why things are the way they are, they should simply accept their world as given. Perhaps we should stop telling people that they are simply mice, chasing cheese, in someone else's maze. I know those are not the messages WMMC set out to promote, but to many readers, they are powerfully conveyed.
I Moved Your Cheese aims to help readers question their assumptions about what limitations they really face and to encourage them to take the steps necessary to change not only their behavior but also their circumstances. In the face of long-standing precedent, strong social norms, resource scarcity, and the powerful expectations of others, individuals may underestimate their ability to control their own destiny, to reshape their environment, and to overcome the constraints they face. Success in areas such as career development, innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, problem solving, and business growth—and also personal growth—often depends on exactly that: the ability to challenge assumptions, reshape the environment, and play by a different set of rules …your own.
Like WMMC, this book tells the story of mice who live in a maze. In this case, the main characters are three unique and adventurous mice: Max, Zed, and Big. As we watch their lives unfold and intersect, we discover that instead of just reacting to change and chasing the cheese, each of us has the ability to escape the maze or even reconfigure the maze to our liking. We can create the new circumstances and realities we want, but first we must discard the often deeply ingrained notion that we are nothing more than mice in someone else's maze. As Zed explains, "You see, Max, the problem is not that the mouse is in the maze, but that the maze is in the mouse."
This book is intended for people and organizations that feel trapped in their current circumstances; for people who are working hard and maybe even finding success in their life and work, but who struggle to find meaning or fulfillment in what they are doing; for those who are playing (perhaps very well) a game that is not of their choosing; for those whose view of success is not simply predicated on changing the old ways of doing things but on reimagining them; and for those who seek inspiration as they consider what they can and should do with the rest of their lives. (And if you're unsure whether you fit any such description, just read the book—it's short!)
Max, Zed, and Big have been with me for a long time now. And yet every time I revisit their adventures, I find myself inspired anew. I hope you will be inspired as well. And more than anything else, I hope that reading this book will put a smile on your face—and that you will be left wondering exactly why you are smiling.