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Cheese is Simple; Management is Hard

From Spencer Johnson's "Who Moved My Cheese?" to the design of eBay, business can learn the easy way.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Even as the Net giddily redefined global business in 1999, the year's top-selling business text turned out to be a book with nary a mention of the new new medium. America's managers were busy gobbling up the wisdom of a work whose title posed the excruciatingly simple question: Who Moved My Cheese?

The protagonists of Cheese bear such names as Hem, Haw, Sniff, and Scurry — no prizes for guessing their respective roles in the maze. Cheese-flavored change management adages include: "The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy the new cheese." And who can forget, "Smell the cheese often so you know when it's getting old."

No, management hasn't gone crackers. Quite the contrary: The success of Cheese speaks volumes about the kind of mousetraps it takes to capture the hearts and minds of today's managers. It defines the pop managerial zeitgeist as surely as Jonathan Livingston Seagull did for the broader pop culture of its day, such that only the most condescending of business elitists can ignore why Cheese has done so well.

Celebrated in speeches by the likes of former Hewlett-Packard Company CEO Lewis E. Platt, and purchased in truckloads by people-centric companies like the Southwest Airlines Company, Cheese is a pleasant parable of such unrelenting simplicity and accessibility that it makes Stuart Little seem as rich and textured as Madam Bovary. Summarizing the plot or the characters would unfairly undermine its intent — which is both good-hearted and utterly pragmatic. It is one of those rare works — the word "book" betrays it — that merits attention more for what it stands for than for what it actually says. In essence, Cheese is about coping with the challenge of change.

Cheese attacks change in a pragmatic style. For good reason: It's written by Dr. Spencer Johnson, the co-author of the unbelievably best-selling business book of the early '80s, The One Minute Manager. Manager certainly struck a resonant chord in its day because it appealed to the sense of urgency managers were feeling about the need to be far more effective far faster. Authors Kenneth H. Blanchard and Dr. Johnson, an MD, created a clear, simple, and focused package ruthlessly engineered around the theme of rapid effectiveness. Manager was not a mere metaphor; it was a methodology. A lot of managers swore the book had a bigger impact on their day-to-day interactions than their MBAs did.

What does it say about the quality of managerial life and executive development when a mini-book like Manager convinces so many people to honestly believe that one-minute metrics make them better managers and better people? It says a lot. It says even more when one of the authors of that work comes back more than a decade later to craft a text that shocks new awareness into yet another generation of managers. There's something important going on.

A confession: Reading Cheese was a thoroughly uncomfortable experience (even if it only lasted for about 40 minutes). While the book clearly possesses a sort of Hallmark/Kahlil Gibran appeal, it struck me as cloyingly transparent. And as an author of a moderately successful business book, Serious Play, published by a university press, and a columnist for Fortune magazine, I found it almost impossible to believe that a "book" like Cheese — $19.95, for God's sake, for 94 large-type pages — could win the sort of bottom-up and CEO-down support that it did. Was I so much the snob that I literally — and I mean "literally" literally — couldn't get what made Cheese so desirable?

In truth, I didn't understood the power of Cheese until I had an unexpected argument with a client. The details of the argument are irrelevant. My realization emerged as I listened to the client's distress: It's not that the company didn't understand the issues involved; it's that it didn't understand the issues in a form that could be credibly communicated to the rest of the organization. We were, in fact, in complete agreement. However, we were not in agreement on the appropriate level of simplicity and accessibility to the organization at large.

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.

This is clearly the message behind Bill Jensen's Simplicity. The book's "Dirty Little Secret, Hidden in Plain Sight: Work complexity is the result of our worst intellectual habits. We're not structuring goals, communication, information, and knowledge so that a diverse workforce can use them to make decisions," writes Mr. Jensen. Indeed, the irony is that many managers now pass along unclarified clutter to their subordinates and pass that off as "empowerment." Disgraceful. Mr. Jensen's book calls them on it.

Foolishly positioned as an antidote to information overload, the book is, in fact, a useful meditation on the trade-offs associated with crafting communications that scale in accessibility and simplicity. No, this isn't about public relations or better documentation. This is a book that looks at the 80/20 rules of simplicity: Where does a 20 percent improvement in simplicity generate an 80 percent improvement in results? Where does the 20 percent of complexity create 80 percent of the confusion? These are useful lenses through which to view managerial effectiveness. While many of Mr. Jensen's suggestions err on the side of being simplistic, he does bring a welcome rigor to the challenge of balancing simplicity with comprehensiveness. This is a game of trade-offs: While simplicity doesn't come cheaply, the coordination costs of complexity have their own infernal economics, too.

There is, of course, a global battlefield where these trade-offs and challenges are fought every day. That battlefield is the World Wide Web. Go to any well-traveled and successful site — an, an eBay, a Yahoo and it becomes immediately clear that these are places where simplicity, clarity, and comprehensiveness are in constant tension. However, it's equally apparent that these sites can't afford to be too complex, because it's so simple to click away. The ease of exit has forced site designers to employ compelling clarity. One of the reasons many people claim they prefer shopping online to going to the mall is that it is easier and simpler. Today's Web sites are designed with the harsh market reality that complexity alienates where simplicity invites.

Indeed, we are seeing corporate intranets mimic the design and functionality of successful e-tailers and Web portals. Why? Because they are so familiar? No, because they are easy-to-use and accessible. Intriguingly, the rise of commerce, content, and community interfaces on the Web is having a huge impact on the design of those interfaces within the firm. The marketplace understands simplicity better than most managements do; consequently, enterprises worldwide are importing the simplicity ethic to their own internal networks.

The double-edged sword of technological innovation is that it is even more capable of complicating life than simplifying it. However, as books like Cheese and Simplicity affirm, people in organizations are rebelling against the notion that complexity is an inherent price you pay for innovation. On the contrary, if you are prepared to learn — and act upon — what constitutes appropriate simplicity in your organization, you can end up having the best of both worlds.

Reprint No. 00210

Simple Resources
Works mentioned in this review
Kenneth H. Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, The One Minute Manager
(William Morrow & Company, 1982), 112 pages, $20.00
Bill Jensen, Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster (Perseus Books, 2000), 221 pages, $25.00,
Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life (Putnam Publishing Group, 1998), 94 pages, $19.95,



Michael Schrage,
Michael Schrage is codirector of the MIT Media Lab’s e-Markets Initiative and a senior adviser to the MIT Security Studies program. Mr Schrage is the author of Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate (Harvard Business School Press, 1999).
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