My epiphany was simplicity itself: Cheese isn't successful because it says anything intriguing, provocative, uncomfortable, or insightful about the nature of people and change. It is successful because it knows how to be appropriately simple. What does "appropriate simplicity" mean? It is a simplicity that informs without threatening; it instructs without intimidating. Appropriate simplicity gets people thinking and feeling about the nature of change in ways that make them feel more comfortable than uncomfortable. Cheese, like The One Minute Manager, is about how you get people in tune with appropriate simplicity, not how you create paradigm shifts by transforming elites. Real leadership is increasingly about making everyone's jobs — and organizational success — really simple.
Turning complex issues and opportunities into effectively simple — as opposed to simplistic or easy — constructs is truly the managerial art form of this new millennium. Instead of seeking "best" or "optimal" solutions to managerial problems, organizations and the people who run them have to become more creative about how they manage clarity and simplicity. Spending an extra two or three weeks on making a project definition simpler or more accessible can save months of time in rework and maintenance from casually accepting a definition that the people actually doing the work find too complex.
There's no denying the intellectual interest in using chaos and complexity theory to explain life's complications. But there is also no denying the emotional appeal of appropriate simplicity. It's not an accident that Time Inc. is readying the launch of Real Simple magazine, and The Hearst Corporation, Time's cross-town rival, is launching O: The Oprah Magazine, which shares the theme of simplicity. The cultural trend is toward a new appreciation of simplicity, not a greater desire to master complexity. We see this everywhere from Martha Stewart's oeuvre to the design of every Gen-X Web site seeking an IPO.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once proclaimed that we should "Seek simplicity and distrust it." Einstein observed that we should "Make things as simple as possible — but no simpler." Who Moved My Cheese? is very much written in the spirit of those admonitions. There truly is a world of difference between organizations that view their challenge as better managing complexity and those that want to better manage simplicity. The design sensibilities — and their implications — are profoundly different. You can see it in the way a Southwest Airlines grows around its effective ethic of simplicity, and the systems developed by American Airlines Inc. in its efforts at complexity management. Count the number of keystrokes it takes an American Airlines gate agent to change a ticket versus a Southwest agent.
Of course, the human paragon of business simplicity is — unsurprisingly — the General Electric Company's Jack Welch. Mr. Welch stresses the importance of making GE's management processes as simple as possible — but no simpler. Indeed, in an online interview, Spencer Johnson quotes Mr. Welch as saying that "insecure managers are uncomfortable with simplicity." Why? Because if you appear to manage complexity better than others, you appear to be smarter than others. The sociology of complexity is every bit as important as the technology of complexity. The problem, as everyone who's tried to do it well knows, is that it's very hard to make things very simple. More often than not, it turns out that managing unnecessary complexity is more cost-effective — both organizationally and technologically — than pushing extra hard to produce systems of elegant simplicity.
So, too, Who Moved My Cheese? could easily have been a much more complex and sophisticated book. But great design is more a function of what you choose to leave out than what you choose to put in. When a book as cheesy as Cheese becomes a business book phenomenon, managers with MBAs and high IQs had better understand that people are looking to simplicity to manage the increased complexities of change. They're not necessarily looking for comprehensive training and sophisticated support systems; they're looking for simple heuristics that clarify in their own minds what their organizations are trying to do. They are sick and tired, and overstressed by "leaders" who pass down all the ambiguities, uncertainties, and complexities that they are unable to clarify or resolve.