Nothing escapes the cheddar-sharp eye of the Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) — absolutely nothing. So when a book by a consultant hit number one on USA Today's best-seller list — and Business Week's best-seller list, and the New York Times business best-seller list, and Publisher Weekly's best-seller list, and the Wall Street Journal's best-seller list — the CDU began to sniff something, well, cheesy in the air.
Nor did the CDU fail to notice the fact that Who Moved My Cheese? An A-Mazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life (Putnam, 1998), by consultant Spencer Johnson, has been scarfed up by the corporate world faster than Brie from a buffet. The president of the New York Stock Exchange read the book and recommended it to his entire staff. Southwest Airlines purchased 27,000 copies for all of its employees and sent a copy to every person's home. Mercedes-Benz ordered more than 7,000 copies and uses the book in its training program.
The book has its own Web site, an animated movie, a learning program called "The Cheese Experience" for organizations, a "Cheese E-Shop" (get yer squeezable, cheese-wedge stress relievers here), and an all-around merchandising machine that plasters images of mice and cheese on everything from coffee mugs and screen savers to Post-it notes and golf shirts. Mice? Cheese? Coffee mugs? Golf shirts, for Gouda's sake? A cheese experience indeed!
The book, a lightweight, 94-page hardcover, kicks off with a shameless prefatory plug by the author's business partner. The story goes like this: Four little characters — two humans and two mice — live in a maze. One day, they all find cheese in a corner of the maze. Day after day, they go back to the same spot and eat cheese. Finally, when they run out of cheese, the two humans hem and haw (which, as it happens, are their names — Hem and Haw) and grumble and whine (not their names, but you get the idea). Meanwhile, the two mice go scurrying off into the maze and, as a result, find more cheese.
From this, we are to conclude the following: It's better to scurry than to wallow, and it's much better to emulate mice than to emulate humans. The book ends with an exhortation to spread the story around, an order form entitled "Share It With Others," and a reminder that Who Moved My Cheese? is "available at special quantity discounts for bulk purchases."
The CDU smelled a rat. Sure, parables can be instructive. Sure, it's hard for people to change. But mice in a maze? Are we mere rodents in someone else's Kafkaesque construction, our Klosterkäse delivered from some unknown place on high? Are we mice, then? Or are we people? And if we're people, would we really be better off acting like mice, as the book suggests?
To find out about mice and mazes, the CDU went straight to its bookshelf and grabbed a well-thumbed copy of Current Protocols in Neuroscience. Most rodents, says the chapter on mice and mazes, "are quite fearful of exploring the arms during the initial training periods. [The rodent] will usually remain frozen in one place on the maze and not explore. In addition, if it is frightened it will usually defecate and urinate on the maze and squeal when being picked up."
To the CDU, it sounded as if rodents are at least as nervous about change as humans are, particularly when it comes to mazes. To continue its research, the CDU paid a visit to the man who wrote the book (actually, a section of the book): Gary L. Wenk, professor of pyschology and neurology at the University of Arizona. What, the CDU asked Wenk, would happen if you put little humans in a maze?
"I imagine they'd wonder what the heck they were doing there, and then they'd find a way to climb out," Wenk replied scientifically. "Isn't that what's so special about humans — that our brains enable us to solve problems outside the context they're embedded in? I'd guess the people in Who Moved My Cheese? suffered some sort of frontal-lobe damage."
Although Wenk's answer made sense, the CDU wanted more hard data. Which is what Dalhousie University psychology professor Richard Brown offered. Brown happens to be an authority on how people deal with change inside mazes. For a paper currently under consideration at a peer-reviewed journal, Brown put 20 males and 20 females through a joystick-driven virtual maze in his lab in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Then he rerouted the maze, changing the path to the goal box.
He actually did move the cheese!
What happened then? Did pandemonium reign? "The subjects behaved just like mice do," said Dr. Brown, directly contradicting the most fundamental premise of Who Moved My Cheese? "The humans showed the same pattern of learning that the mice did. According to my data, they paused briefly and looked around. Then they moved in a new direction." No yelling? No fussing? No "Gimme my Hipi Iti"? No "I wanta ricotta salata"? "Not to my knowledge," Brown replied, consulting some printouts. "No freak-outs that I heard of. Mostly, they finished the maze, and that was that."
Brown made one other noteworthy observation: "No one uses cheese in the lab. We use food pellets that are of a standardized weight and that are easy to manipulate." Interesting! So scientists not only moved the cheese, they removed the cheese!
Undaunted, the CDU tracked down William Roberts, professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, one scientist who has used cheese. What happens, the CDU asked Roberts, when you put two rodents in a maze and leave them there with a big hunk of cheese?
"A PhD student did a thesis on something similar to this a few years ago," said Roberts. "She put two male rats in an open-field maze at the same time with two bins of food. The dominant rat tried to keep the more submissive rat penned up in a box at the center of the maze so that it couldn't go out and forage. The big guy would go out and forage, but when he saw the smaller one try to go out he'd run over and dominate it."
And what about mice? "Mice would do essentially the same thing, particularly if you left them there for a period of days or weeks," Roberts continued. "Each mouse would probably establish a territory in the maze, and mark that territory by urinating on the periphery. Then each mouse would exist within its territory as well as it could and spend most of its time patrolling the boundaries. Each mouse would build a nest, a central place where it would sleep. They'd make trips out to eat at night (not during the day, since they're diurnal), but the dominant mouse would probably drive the submissive one away as much as possible to keep it from eating. Usually, these things are settled without drawing blood. A confrontation generally involves the bigger animal's assuming some species-specific dominance posture. For example, the dominant mouse will walk over the other mouse's back, and the submissive mouse will simply freeze up or go into hiding."
There was one last controversy to be settled: this question of old versus new cheese. When it came to stale old slices of advice, the book served up more than its share, with ideas such as "Old Beliefs Do Not Lead You To New Cheese" and "The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Find New Cheese."
Is this good cheese advice, or bad cheese advice? To find out, the CDU tracked down new-cheese champion Laura Werlin, author of The New American Cheese: Profiles of America's Great Cheesemakers and Recipes for Cooking With Cheese (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 2000). The CDU caught up with Werlin at the Aspen Airport, where she was en route to a speaking engagement at the American Cheese Society's annual conference.
"Old cheese is to be cherished — not cast aside," said Werlin, who, despite her new-cheese bias, was astonished that anyone would malign old cheese. "With a Parmigiano-Reggiano, for example, you definitely want it old — preferably two or three years old. That's when the flavor develops."
When it comes to the question of cheese, change, and consultants, the CDU considers the queso closed.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.