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Cheese Whiz

Posted 5/16/2001

It's pink-slip time at cash-strapped City Hall, and Mayor Martin O'Malley is readying the troops for downsizing--and paving the way with cheese. Or rather, Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life, the tiny (94 large-type pages), best-selling (78 weeks on the New York Times list) tome that teaches people how to deal with "change" (in the city's case, mass layoffs) via a charming allegory whose core message is that unblinking, unthinking obedience to the corporate master is the best way to happiness.

Widely used as a training tool by organizations and businesses (including City Paper's parent company, Times-Shamrock), Cheese has been deemed required reading for O'Malley's subcabinet--about 15 high-level appointees, mayoral spokesperson Tony White says. In addition, the current session of the Mayor's Executive Leadership Program--a management-training course for upper- and midlevel city bureaucrats--featured Cheese at its opening conference in February. Thus, the book's message set the tone for a crop of nearly 30 agency leaders who will graduate in June by making presentations to O'Malley, says Sonya Drake, assistant director of the city's Personnel Department.

Written by Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard, Cheese tells the story of four creatures--two mice named Sniff and Scurry and a pair of "littlepeople" (mouse-sized humans) named Hem and Haw--who spend their days looking for cheese hidden in a maze. The mice, working purely on their animal instincts, are quite adept at finding the booty. The littlepeople, however, are stupidly hindered by their humanity--their complex thoughts, their desire to understand what's happening to them--and end up unnecessarily anxious and hungry whenever faced with a lack of cheese. The moral of the story: In a changing environment, better to act like an animal than think like a person.

In his book One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (Imprints, Jan. 24), social critic Thomas Frank nails the usefulness of Cheese to managers in a situation such as that at City Hall. "Within these slim covers--and even slimmer intellectual parameters--[the authors are] able to pull off a work of breathtaking obscenity," Frank writes, "to both call for childlike innocence before the gods of the market and openly advance a scheme for gulling, silencing, and firing workers."

Leading the way to Cheese for the Mayor's Executive Leadership Program is Terri Diener, a Baltimore-based management consultant hired by the Personnel Department. Given Cheese's plot, a more appropriate trainer would be hard to find: Diener is also an animal psychic who (according to her Web site, can communicate telepathically with a pet by looking at its picture while chatting with its owner on the phone and, in so doing, "brings the animal and human world one step closer by bridging both worlds." (Fees start at $40 per half-hour for a phone consultation; she takes Visa and Mastercard.)

In a phone interview, Diener--who has also done consulting for the city public-school system--expounded on how Cheese and animal communication go together: "When I connect with animals, I really understand their instinctive nature. And in Who Moved My Cheese? you're also looking at the instinctive nature of people. Is it my instinct to sniff out change and be in the forefront of it? Or is it my instinct to dig in my heels and be protective of what I have? That's where the human animal as well as the canine and feline animals come together. . . . We all do have instinctive natures that really need to be honored if change is going to happen."

A novel idea, the Nose thinks. It will be quite interesting to see how O'Malley and company "honor" the animal instincts of fired city workers.

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