What the Obesity Dilemma Tells Us About Corporate Change

Breakfast at the Dolphin, Disney World.   I’m seated next to two women, each about 5’6”, each 250 – 300 lbs.  They’re tucking into their French toast with syrup, bacon-cheese omelets and sticky buns with butter, when one woman’s cell phone alarm goes off.  “Oh, time to take my pills,” she cheerfully announces to her companion.

Many of you will read the above paragraph with some degree of moral disapproval; I wrote it to elicit that reaction. Others of you will blame Big Food.  Others, who sympathize with the difficulty of losing weight, can be further broken down into those who seek:

a. better drugs for appetite suppression,
b. various forms of group or self-help programs, or
c. self-worth through affirmations—“Fat Power.

All of which suggests total lack of agreement about how to address obesity.

But maybe it suggests even more.  The obesity problem is a subset of a larger problem: how to get human beings—and companies–to change.

Options for Dealing with Obesity

It is a statistical fact that we have suddenly—like in the last 20 years—gotten significantly, massively, undeniably, across-the-board fatter.  If you have any doubts about this at all, read the New Yorker’s XXXL: Why Are We So Fat?   Believe it.  The Dolphin is America.  We have recently  become Big Time Fat.  And we are dying way younger, driving up health care costs massively, and lowering life quality by doing so.

You could, of course, go for the structural solution.  The Dolphin also has a store called Sugar3. The Dolphin doesn’t offer microwaves, and they don’t sell plain popcorn. But you can buy caramelized, sugared popcorn in the stores.  Change all that.

But fixing an industry that is laser-focused on profitable hi-calorie product creation is just not gonna happen in the US.  We believe too strongly in other values—self-will, freedom of choice, individual responsibility. When these iconic values get into the hands of purely self-aggrandizing corporate profit machines, we are putty.  We do not have the aggregate political self-will to systemically ‘just say no’ to the purveyors of deep-fried-quad-stacker-twinkies.  

(It isn’t just the food itself, either. Bra sizes (I’m told) have been gradually getting smaller (i.e. the old B is the new C).  Lady’s dress sizes have gone the other way (the old 8 is the new 6); I heard of one (highly educated) woman who only shops at one store, because only there is she a size 2.)

If the social and political system is inadequate to deal with this public health issue, then how about self-will?  The growing magnitude of self-help books is testimony to the failure of self-help books. 

What about groups?  Whether Nutri-System or Weight-Watchers or Overeaters Anonymous, it works if you work it.  (Oh, that darn ‘if’ clause).  And we watch motivated, powerful people like Oprah or Kirstie Alley fail to work it—publicly, all the time.

Drugs?  Been to a managed care facility for seniors lately?  There is a several-times daily routine; the wheelchairs line up at the meds-dispensing window like obedient dairy cattle.  Many of us very much want to believe there is a penicillin for everything; if the evening news tells us we can treat restless-pinky syndrome, then weight-control ought to be a piece of cake (sorry). 

The obvious truth is: none of these solutions works with anything near dependability.  There are no silver bullets; bullet peddlers also rep lines of snake oil.  For a few souls, one solution works; but even then, it’s after having tried others.

The best answer seems to be: d. all of the above. 

Now–what’s this got to do with organizational change?

Options for Dealing with Organizational Change

How do you change an organization?  How do you improve sales, customer service, or total quality?  How do you increase employee engagement, customer loyalty, or trustworthiness?

  • •    Structure helps.  Close the sugar-cubed stores, aka monetized mini-metrics and weekly quotas; sell fruit next to the Fatitos, i.e. talk to customers, role-model good behavior.  Make it easier to be good.
  • •    Keep it simple.  Every diet ever invented is subject to Newton’s Law of Conservation of Energy—it is simply about calories.  Every company ever invented has to sell something good to someone who wants it.  The further away you get from the basics, the more people forget the basics.  
  • •    There is no pill.  There is no pill.   There is no pill.
  • •    Fat Power is no better than Alcoholic Power, Smokers Power or Victim Power.  The Brotherhood of the Similarly Fat is just another self-deluding drug.  Spandex is not your friend.   
  • •    Will power alone is necessary but not sufficient: white-knuckling is sometimes required, but it’s a helluva way to live a life.  Make the daily stuff of business itself the carrot, then use fewer sticks. 

Corporate change isn’t only like personal change, it is personal change.  Becoming fully adult and fully human is a lifelong pursuit.  Ditto for companies.

Choose d. all the above.