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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Spencer Johnson--Cowardly Weasel

Karen De Coster has some interesting comments on one of my earlier Who Moved My Cheese? posts.

Carroll is right about several things. First off, it is everywhere in the corporate world. Second, employees are ordered to read it. Third, the thesis is: do exactly what you are told. And this, we are supposed to understand, is "learning to make changes." Pshaw!

It is a pile of collectivist, feel-good, moronic shit. Its purpose is to dumb down every corporate drone to the lowest common denominator. The book says that you cannot stand out from others, that you must accept your bits of cheese, and smile, for it pays your mortgage and new car lease every month.

And hers is the voice of experience:

I was told--by a particular loser--that I had to read either of those two books. Or else I would suffer the consequences of a marking of "goal not obtained" in my annual performance review. My other choice of a book to read was Jack Welch's intellectually stirring, deeply philosophical, and supremely written "Winning." Another winner--pun intended--written at the 3rd grade level.

This is what people in the corporate environment desire of their employees that otherwise have an undergrad degree, (2) grad degrees, and a CPA. So here I was, in the middle of reading, say, The Superfluous Men or Bahm-Bowerk's Capital and Interest, and I was supposed to embrace, into my reading time, the fish book or cheese book, or perhaps even Jack Welch's Oprah-like brilliance. Worse than that, I was told to write a "book report" on it, explaining the importance of the book to my job, and life in general.

Seems to me she might just as well have pulled a hammer out of her overcoat, banged herself in the forehead real hard about five or six times, and gotten that "goal obtained" marking right away--without all the unpleasantness of having to read Spencer's "book." The practical effect would be pretty much the same: unless you prepare yourself for WWMC? with a generous application of Bullshit Gard (TM), you can feel the IQ points being sucked out as you read it.

That's the kind of anecdotal feedback I've been getting a lot of since I started posting on WWMC?, by the way. For example, I got an email from a university instructor (who will remain anonymous, for obvious reasons) who said the university president ordered everybody to read that putrid little turd of a book (that's my characterization, not hers).

In another post, Karen quotes an excellent review by Laura Lemay, who identifies the not-so-subtle message in the book:

And one of them [the classmates] says they have this great story about cheese, and how in their company when they told they cheese story, it CHANGED EVERYONE'S LIVES.

Everyone? the group asks in awe.

Well, not everyone, the classmate says sadly. There was one guy at our company who heard the cheese story, and he thought it was stupid and a complete waste of time. But then, he was one of those types who refuses to look for new cheese. And we eventually had to let him go.

Ahhh. You will read the cheese book, and you will like the cheese book. It will change your life. Or we will fire your ass.

But the funniest development of all in the world of Cheese: Spenser Johnson's apparently seen some of those negative reviews at Amazon and elsewhere, and he is not amused. Johnson, in an endpaper blurb, takes umbrage:

Some even fear it suggests all change is good and that people should mindlessly conform to unnecessary changes imposed by others, although that is not in the story.

No, it's just implicit in every page of this wetched little book. The real question is, how could a reader not make such an interpretation?

First of all, Johnson's pissing and moaning is directly across from a facing page full of enthusiastic endorsements from "organizations" that used the book to get their employees' minds right. This is our first clue that there might be a hidden agenda. The fact that WMMC?'s website is geared toward corporate clients might also raise some eyebrows. Much like the Chicken Shit for the Soul series, the book's prime customer is HR departments. Regarding the latter series, the (unfortunately now defunct) Molotov Cocktail for the Soul site helpfully explained that it was aimed at

"organizations who want to get the most out of people;" and those people would, of course, be the Prozac-plied personnel now doing twice the work they would have at the same position twenty years ago and are too sedated to feel the boss's whip cracking across their backs. "

As more than one Amazon reviewer noted, the "book" is a heavily marked up piece of fluff, specifically designed to be marketed by the gross to HR departments, who in turn pass it on to a captive audience of wage-serfs. And a lot of those employees, mindful of Haw's slogan "Noticing Small Changes Early Helps You Adapt To The Bigger Changes That Are To Come," see the distribution of this book as the prelude to downsizing or a general tightening of the screws on the "littlepeople." If your employers start passing out WWMC?, just remember what Victor said in that Ren and Stimpy cartoon: "Relax and think happy thoughts, because this is really... gonna... HURT!"

Just about every page of Who Moved My Cheese? has something to bear out the interpretation that Johnson finds so objectionable. It is full of examples of people wisely adapting to "change" and being rewarded, and obstinate "change resisters" who suffer the consequences of their folly. The leading character, Haw, at first questions change and then discovers the error of his ways. But there is not one single, solitary example of a character questioning change, deciding that it was unjustified, and turning out to be right. The only character in the book who even raises the question of who is responsible for change and whether it is justified, Hem, is portrayed as unattractively as possible.

“What? No Cheese?” Hem yelled. He continued yelling, “No Cheese? No Cheese?” as though if he shouted loud enough someone would put it back.

“Who moved my Cheese?” he hollered.

Finally, he put his hands on his hips, his face turned red, and he screamed at the top of his voice, “It’s not fair!”

When Hem even raises the question of who moved the cheese, and why, it's portrayed as the moral equivalent of a toddler's temper tantrum, or as motivated by a feeling of entitlement.

"Why should we change?" Hem asked. "We're littlepeople. We're special. This sort of thing should not happen to us. Or if it does, we should at least get some benefits."

"Why should we get benefits?" Haw asked.

"Because we're entitled," Hem claimed....

"Why?" Haw asked.

"Because we didn't cause this problem," Hem said. "Somebody else did this and we should get something out of it."

Haw suggested, "Maybe we should simply stop analyzing the situation and go find some New Cheese?"

Or as Homer Simpson said, "I mean, we could sit here and try to figure out who forgot to pick up who 'til the cows come home."

It's kind of hard to make a reasoned evaluation of whether change is "unnecessary" when it's out of bounds even to raise the question of who moved it. For that matter, Spencer makes his "change" the work of anonymous forces which are never identified, conveniently making the question of who moved the cheese impossible to answer. No scientist in a white lab coat ever reaches in to move the cheese. "Change" is not the product of human agency--it's just "there."

It's also hard to imagine, in Johnson's little world, just what the identifying features of unnecessary or unjustified change would be, although in his endpaper blurb he appears to recognize it as a theoretical possibility (like antimatter or wormholes, or something). In every concrete example in this sorry excuse for a book, the very act of questioning whether a change is necessary puts one squarely in the camp of Hem. For example, consider this anecdote from Ken Blanchard's introduction:

One of the many real-life examples comes from Charlie Jones, a well-respected broadcaster for NBC-TV, who revealed that hearing the story of “Who Moved My Cheese?” saved his career....

...Charlie had worked hard and had done a great job of broadcasting Track and Field events at an earlier Olympic Games, so he was surprised and upset when his boss told him he’d been removed from these showcase events for the next Olympics and assigned to Swimming and Diving.

Not knowing these sports as well, he was frustrated. He felt unappreciated and he became angry. He said he felt it wasn’t fair! His anger began to affect everything he did.

Then, he heard the story of “Who Moved My Cheese?”

After that he said he laughed at himself and changed his attitude. He realized his boss had just “moved his Cheese.” So he adapted. He learned the two new sports, and in the process, found that doing something new made him feel young.

It wasn’t long before his boss recognized his new attitude and energy, and he soon got better assignments. He went on to enjoy more success than ever and was later inducted into Pro Football’s Hall of Fame – Broadcaster’s Alley.

Aha. So Job, though sorely tempted to question God, finally recognized that the Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. And in the end,

the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning...

For Charlie to question his boss was akin to Job questioning the voice from the whirlwind. "My boss decided it, I accept it, that settles it."

What's really ironic is to imagine employees accepting "change" with such blind trust, when the "change" might result from some nitwit at the top who made a decision with a copy of One Minute Manager in his hand.

And Johnson's own book, apparently, has itself become a form of cheese-moving to be accepted without question. As Blanchard put it in his introduction,

it stimulated their [his employees'] thinking about how they might apply what they'd learned to their own situation.

See, whether or not they agreed with what they read wasn't even an issue--just how to "apply" what "they'd learned."

The fictionalized Discussion in the last part of the book, between the class reunion attendees, includes an extended anecdote by "Michael," the meta-story's fictionalized author of the "little story," who invented it to deal with "change resisters" in his own "organization." At one point, he actually appears to be about to address the question of resisting change imposed from above:

Well, the further we went into our organization, the more people we found who felt they had less power. They were understandably more afraid of what the change imposed from above might do to them. So they resisted change.

In short, a change imposed is a change opposed.

But having skirted the edge of heresy by raising this question, he apparently dismisses it as unworthy of serious consideration. The book helped all these recalcitrants to improve their attitude toward change, and the issue of its legitimacy as allowed to slowly fade away:

But when the Cheese Story was shared with literally everyone in our organization, it helped up change the way we looked at change. It helped everyone laugh, or at least smile, at their old fears and want to move on.

There it is again: management assigns this shitty little book to "literally everyone in [the] organization," and they all stop asking about who's imposing this change from above, who it benefits, and whether it's a good idea. They get their minds right.

...practically everyone, those who left and those who stayed, said the Cheese story helped them see things differently and cope better.

Those who had to go out and look for a new job said it was hard at first but recalling the story was a great help to them....

...[I]nstead of complaining about the changes that were happening, people now said, "They just moved our Cheese. Let’s look for the New Cheese." It saved a lot of time and reduced stress....

I'll bet it did, at least for management. "They just moved our Cheese. Let's look for New Cheese" is certainly less stressful to hear than "They ran the company into the ground, sold off their stock just before the earnings report came out, and flushed our pension fund down the toilet! Let's lynch the bastards!"

Before long, the people who had been resisting saw the advantage of changing. They even helped bring about change.

Michael was then asked why he thought this happened. Pay attention to his answer, because this is really important. There may be a quiz at the end.

"I think a lot of it had to do with the kind of peer pressure that can exist in a company.

“What happens in most organizations you’ve been in when a change is announced by top management? Do most people say the change is a great idea or a bad idea?”

“A bad idea,” Frank answered.

“Yes,” Michael agreed. “Why?”

Carlos said, “Because people want things to stay the same and they think the change will be bad for them. When one smart person says the change is a bad idea, others say the same.”

“Yes, they may not really feel that way,” Michael said, “but they agreed in order to look smart as well. That’s the sort of peer pressure that fights change in any organization....

“People changed because no one wanted to look like Hem!”

But there were, alas, still a few Hems who failed to respond to the glorious visions of change presented by the Dear Leader:

"Unfortunately, the Hems were the anchors that slowed us down.... They were either too comfortable or too afraid to change. Some of our Hems changed only when they saw the sensible [by definition] vision we painted that showed them how changing would work to their advantage...."

"What did you do with the Hems who didn't change?" Frank wanted to know.

"We had to let them go," Michael said sadly.

Again, I've scoured this narrative for the slightest hint that the changes imposed by "leaders" could ever be unnecessary or a bad idea. Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada. As with every single other example in this book, the pattern is: Leader imposes change, the Haws get with the program, and the Hems get the door. In Laura Lemay's words,

You will read the cheese book, and you will like the cheese book. It will change your life. Or we will fire your ass.

Or as Johnson helpfully put it:

...all change is good and... people should mindlessly conform to unnecessary changes imposed by others.

While we're on the subject of that Discussion: it probably says a great deal about Johnson's authoritarianism. Outside of the Bible in a Sunday School class, or Quotations from Chairman Mao in a Red Guard study circle, it's hard to imagine any book getting such a relentlessly positive and respectful reception from a group of readers. One almost expects somebody to stand up and ask "Mr. Johnson: Your book's sales have the momentum of a runaway freight train. How do you explain its popularity?"

The sole "skeptic," Richard, only observes that it's "a nice little story," but questions how it might be actually put into use. For even this modest impiety, one half expects him to be struck dead by a thunderbolt. Richard is a lot like the first, candy-ass set of critics mentioned in Blanchard's endpaper blurb, who only criticize the style and presentation (he dismisses them before turning on the real enemy in my earlier quote).

Critics... do not understand how so many people could find it so valuable. They say the story is so simple a child could understand it, and it insults their intelligence, as it is just obvious common sense."

That's the only kind of "criticism" WMMC? gets in this "discussion." Not that it's lying, bullshit management propaganda. Not that it's trying to turn the worker into a docile serf who won't fight back when he's dicked around. Not that its main purpose is to enable management to get more out of the worker for less pay. But rather that it's "obvious common sense." That's the kind of "criticism" that Johnson can live with. So long as the corporate drone accepts the basic truth of the message, he can get away with some irreverence toward the vehicle it's delivered in. If you think about it, most authoritarians probably prefer that kind of "criticism" to fanatical agreement. Fanatical agreement comes from someone who, if nothing else, at least cares about the world of the mind. The lazy-minded worker or citizen who implicitly believes in the official ideology, but is bored by propaganda, will swallow anything he's told (as he clicks over from the State of the Union to American Idol).

The only conclusion I can draw from all this is that Spencer Johnson is a dishonest, cowardly weasel. His book is obviously written, with deliberate intent, to impart the very message that he so strenuously disavows: all change is good and... people should mindlessly conform to unnecessary changes imposed by others. He just doesn't have the balls to own up to it. So when the kitchen light is clicked on, he furiously scuttles under the refrigerator, all the while affecting outrage. He's shocked--shocked!!--that anyone could possibly so misconstrue the book as to actually get the message that he meant to convey.

8 Comments:

Anonymous b-psycho said...

Someone should write a part-parody/part-counter-propaganda version where the "littlepeople" say "fuck this, we're gonna go move the boss' cheese!". One would think that people would figure out that any system that requires you to treat adults like children or worse is inherently short-lived just by looking at how the employees ACT.

BTW: I dunno if you do this stuff, but I've a meme-tag with your name on it.

March 06, 2006 2:28 PM  
Blogger James Leroy Wilson said...

You would think an editor would have written back to Blanchard asking for an explanation as to how Charlie Jones's switch from track & field to swimming & diving had anything to do with his becoming a Hall of Fame football broadcaster.

March 06, 2006 3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen - and honest, a former boss picked up a copy of "Who Cut The Cheese" and thought it was by the same guy! Imagine her chagrin when she found the second book offensive. I told her they were of equal worth so we should be able to pick which one we read. Where you ask? Oregon DOT.

March 06, 2006 5:22 PM  
Blogger Battlepanda said...

I just don't get it...this book's message is that our existance is comparable to rats in a maze jumping through hoops to scrabble at the scraps left at their overlord's leisure. Is the plan to inspire enough suicides to take care of the downsizing problem?

March 06, 2006 7:22 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I can see why the imposition of this book from a boss would make someone mad. However I have to wonder about some of your criticism. I would add that I never read the book. I am just commenting on your arguments against the book.

To begin with, reading your comments, I tend to get the impression that all change is some sort of management conspiracy to make employee life miserable. And I'm not so sure that is correct. Some change, probably most, I am guessing is market based change that people have no control over.

Secondly, it seems strange to me that people tend to think that it is the responsability of an employer to keep one employed all comfy and cozy. I actually think a lot of change is good. It keeps one from becoming too dependant and complacent. I haven't been in the working world that long, but think that changing jobs (and I mean radically changing jobs) every 10 years or so may be a good thing. It is self defeating to be inable to re-invent yourself, it is complacent, it is a desire to do the same thing day in day out without changing or growing.

And like I said, I never read the book. I don't totally like the idea that employers would institutionalize the book, or force people to read it--or cynically using its message. However, there may be something to it.

March 06, 2006 8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don't they just look up? Or start smashing the walls down, then finding little cows to make their own cheese.

March 07, 2006 5:38 AM  
Anonymous cgeye said...

Permission to bitch slap Mike, please....


First off, this statement, "Some change, probably most, I am guessing is market based change that people have no control over", is a fallacy. Who in the hell creates market based changes, alien overlords? People and their high school clique-level opinions run the stock market, and crazed, blow-monkey, fiscally-irresponsible corporate managers react to it. They've lost the discernment to tell whether a suggested market based change *should* be implemented, and the leadership skills to tell said market makers to shove it, we're doing fine, look at these stats and those stats and these reports...

Ask the managers of Costco how everyone is amazed that they don't treat the rank-and-file employees like crap, just because the largest US employer (Wal*Mart/Sam's Club) does -- and how Costco continues to do better by its customers and its stockholders. Any stock analyst monkey can rattle off how ruthlessness would make Costco even more profitable -- but all those banana fiends ignore the long-term harm screwing your employees does, to the company, when all is said and done except the indictments.

Good Lord, no one is asking employers to keep things cozy -- in a UNION (yes I said it, UNION), Mike, conflict between management and labor is factored into every paycheck (that's why those union dues mean something, in case of a STRIKE, Mike? Betcha I made his B.P jump 20 points, right there --), and workers are treated like adults, consulted about changes before they happen. All workers want is that change be fair -- since when did 'fair' become a naughty playground word? And no one likes changing a job three years, or even five or 10, when employers make their industries so unstable, through constant layoffs, faux-bankruptcies and generous management parachutes, that the labor force for that industry becomes demoralized and unstable, making an ideal environment for wage depression and qualification bloat for new positions. Re-inventing oneself contains the implication that the present you is no good -- who does that benefit, the worker or the employer, counting on devalued staff to make windfall profits?

And about doing the same thing each day: The negative bosses see about this is in collecting a paycheck and benefits, each day, not the same old, same old work. The reason outsourcing works for them is that the cheaper workers don't even have a voice to say how work should go, living in comparative poverty, with feudal national infrastructures. They do the same old, same old work 24/7 -- are they bad people, for wanting that?

Be grateful you never had to read the book -- you probably don't do enough damage to your workplace to be counseled, to read it, nor are you targeted for layoff. And if you are self-employed, save your bile -- you probably profit off of a lot of laid-off workers who did what you do, but stood in the way of a CEO's stock option bonus, to be allowed to continue to work.

March 08, 2006 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

egeye is right on.

I think that one of the reasons US corps have moved so much manufacturing out of the county is that so many US workers, especially union workers, learned how to move the cheese on management. Many rank and file workers, having less skooling than their lower and mid level management, hadn't lost all vestiges of independent thouoght and *balls*compared to management. Bedrock US blue collar labor knows when it's raining bull shit and were often not afraid to say so nor to take direct action either through strikes or sabotage, thus moving management cheese.

Many US wokers between 1945 and 1980 first learned their skills on farms before being sucked into manufacturing. Many of these people learned to think and make equipment via hands on learning by doing, not by burying their noses in skool books like their college bred managers. So most of these line workers knew more about how their equipment worked than their white collared, never dirtied handed superiors. It was easy to sabotage sophisticated equipment and production standards which management could never figure out for weeks or months, usually not without bribing or cajoling some line worker to get his hands dirty to fix the problem.

The main reason US manufacturing is succeeding in different, southern, more rural areas is that the relative costs of living are generally lower than traditional rust belt and NorthEast areas. Until rents and other cost of living factors increase, the relative higher remuneration levels should probably so remain.

Chris Toto

June 12, 2006 10:22 PM  

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