The moving cheese

March 9, 2021

In the 1990s the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” became a sensation among corporate management types. It’s a quick read and offers some simplistic themes. Managers everywhere ordered the book by the caseload, gave a copy to every employee to read, and soon thereafter held a workshop to make sure everybody understood the book’s lessons and would act accordingly for everyone’s benefit. The book’s title comes from its main conflict: As workers we’re all mice making our way through a maze to the places where we know the cheese is. That’s what experience does for us. But someday, without warning, the cheese might not be where we’ve always found it. One of the book’s lessons is to prepare for that cheese movement, and another lesson is that if you’re agile enough, you might be able to figure out where the cheese is going to be next. Like the old line from hockey great Wayne Gretzky: Don’t skate to where the puck is; skate to where the puck is going.

When I looked at some detailed results from our annual salary and compensation survey, lessons from “Who Moved My Cheese?” were among the first thoughts that came to mind. In the year 2020, everybody’s cheese got moved. No further explanation necessary. We’d be remiss if we didn’t include some information on the pandemic’s impact when collecting information for this year’s salary study. We asked our participants if a) their company, and b) themselves individually, were impacted by layoffs, furloughs, or reduced contracted hours. The impact was deep. Sixty-one percent of companies and twenty-seven percent of our survey participants experienced at least one of those situations.

The survey asks participants about whether or not they changed jobs within the past year, and if so, how their income changed with the job switch. In 2020, those who changed jobs made an average of six percent less in their new job than they made in their previous job. I don’t have iron-clad scientific proof, but those numbers strongly indicate to me that many job changes in 2020 were not voluntary—especially considering that in 2019, the average job-changer got a nine percent increase in pay with the new job. When the cheese gets moved, you find however much cheese you can, wherever it is. But among the data is also a suggestion there are some Gretzkys in our industry, skating to where the puck is going. Professionals whose primary role is system design were the most likely to change jobs in 2020, and on average, designers’ pay increased by fifteen percent with the job change.

We reveal more details of our annual study elsewhere in this issue, but I wanted to share that one data set with you here. For all the mocking some of us may have done of “Who Moved My Cheese?” when we were assigned to read it, clearly it left an impression on me because I’m able to recognize its lessons more than 20 years later. If you have a favorite (or least favorite) book of this type that you’ve read over the years, let me know about it. I’ll put it on my reading list either way.


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