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.


12 replies
  1. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie wrote: "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)."

    My parents and their siblings are in their seventies and eighties. So far they all live independently and none of them are in senior’s homes.

    Nonetheless, on their own, they manage to take their medications "like obedient dairy cattle" multiple times a day.  One takes a blood thinner because of a structural heart defect that makes her much more likely, otherwise, to develop blod clots and die.  Another takes a glaucoma medication without which she would go blind.  A third takes the insulin on which she is dependent as a (genetic) diabetic in a long line of diabetics.

    My take away from what you have written in your article is that if only they had some "white knuckle" willpower, they could throw off the shackles of their snake oil, and join you in an Ayn-Randian world of self-determined uber-mensch.

    That may not have been your /intention/, but if you read through not what you meant in your head, you have chosen your examples with a very broad brush, Charlie.

    On a related note, you started your article with an anecdote about two 250-300 lb women, and then proceed to discuss bra sizes, women’s clothing, and hold up Kirsti Alley and Oprah Winfrey as examples of failure.  I really suspect you’re not aware that you do this, but if you take a survey of the articles on your blog, you disproportionately hold up women as illustrations of ridicule, insecurity, and failure.

    I thought it was high time to bring this writing quirk to your attention.  You may want to give some thought to the impression it creates among your female readers / colleagues / clients / potential clients–I doubt it is the impression you set out to make.

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Shaula, thank you for holding the mirror up.  If that’s a pattern that appears evident, then I need to do some looking internally.  That’s obviously not good.

    (Doubly unfortunate, because I do not mean to imply Randian willpower alone can do it–I meant to pointedly include that as a myth, right up there with the other solutions that unfortunately rarely work.  Very few people can change all by themselves.)

    (Ditto on meds.  Many meds are great, save lives, improve quality of life.  Others benefit from the halo effect, are heavily marketed, with far less relevant outcomes. I should not have obscured the point with examples from senior homes.) 

    (And geez I hope I’m not overly picking on women.  But I guess I’d better look.)

    I know your point was my execution, not my own inner view of my intent.  Thanks for the cold shower.



  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    So, Charlie, you say, "…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. Agree.

    So, some thoughts and another perspective.

    When I look at the health of a country (company?), I’m not only interested in the GNP, GDP, bottom line, etc., I go first to the national mental heath statistics, indices such as diabetes, heart ailments, depression and anxiety, suicides, abuse (in its myriad forms), divorce, addictions and substance abuse (obesity), incidents of bullying, hospital and doctor’s office visits (including mental health visits), and the like. In three words, we’re in trouble. The chart line indicating the health of this country trends steadily downward. And, many of these folks work in, right, our companies and businesses. No compartmentalization here.

    In your fine articulation of the "structural" changes you present, you omitted one, which, to me, is the metaphor related to how we deal with overweight and obesity, but to the larger picture of (1) the malaise in which this country is seeped, and (2) why we keep on keeping on unable or unwilling to change .

    Color me black

    The ubiquitous color black — the mask of overweight or the need to appear thin — to hopefully be who I’m not and to persuade others to see me as who I’m not.  The color black weaves through the population of the thin, the slightly overweight, the obese and many of those who populate the downward-moving-line on the mental health chart, those who engage in self-destructive behaviors and who take advantage of others.

    In many spiritual traditions, black is the color of hate and annihilation. When we explore one’s inner psychological and spiritual terrain, we often find lying there, deep below the surface, some degree of self-hatred or self-loathing – quietly seething, festering, like a cancer. We all have parts of ourselves we say we "hate"- IF we tell the truth. Big if (not unrelated to your recent "When arrogance feigns humility" post.)

    Unexplored and unexcised,  self-hate leaks out in subtle ways. One common way we act out self-hate  is by how we harshly judge and treat others – mentally, emotionally, physically, psychologically.  Another, is the way we respond, internally,  to our own self-hate – masking it and denying it. The internal script accompanying self -hate is usually some flavor of "I’m not _____ enough."  Fill in the blank with your favorite self-hate descriptor(s): rich, handsome, thin, smart, loving, spiritual, competent, cool, athletic, humble, quiet, outgoing, important, powerful, sexy, etc.  All of which are a result of not feeling seen, heard, acknowledged, recognized, loved, nurtured, etc. as children and so we took this childhood experience on to believe we were not "worth it" in some way, shape or form and now spend the rest of our lives efforting and struggling to be "worth it," to have "value," to be "seen."  This reactive and defensive effort and struggling clouds our vision, upsets our moral compass, and takes us away from our Authentic Self.

    So, many of our self-destructive behaviors are symptomatic of our self-hate. Many of our narcissistic behaviors are a function of our self-hate. Many of the "Why would a company or organization engage in such anti-social behaviors?" are a function of certain individuals’ self-hate.

    Denial of self-hate places lenses over our "conscious awareness." The pain of inner exploration is just too great. So, we look to external comfort – power, sex, and money on one level (not for what they are in and of themselves but for the fake and phony sense of security they "get" me – emotionally and psychologically, and food, alcohol, material possessions, etc., for the same reason – they take me away from my "pain."  Our obsession with needing comfort, loving, nurturing, etc. leads to these artificial and self-destructive behaviors that "fill the hole" of our feeling deficient, lacking, or "not enough."   

    In the end, the "structural" supports you mention seldom work in the long run. Not unlike excising one cell of a cancerous growth. The cancer remains, rearing its ugly head again and again until we decide to seek real, long-term, life-changing treatment. Until that happens, the books, tapes, CDs, groups, espoused values, policy and procedure manuals, etc. usually won’t do it.

    When Oprah was experiencing her weight-loss crisis, her "team" appeared on Larry King – personal chef, personal trainer, personal spiritual guru.  At one point, Mr. King asked Oprah’s spiritual mentor "why?" Buried in his response, he said, in a word, "ego." In all of her work, she hadn’t dealt with her ego in the way she needed to. All the giveaways, the girls’ school, the espousing of spiritual people and practices, etc., and all the doing, doing, doing, didn’t do it. It takes deeper work.

    Self-hate results in  ego issues. When I deal with why I don’t like myself or parts of myself very much and I see how I act out on this self-hate in disrespecting my self and others, exploiting others, etc., then the possibility of true change and transformation can arise. Then I can see the humanity of myself and others, and treat myself and others accordingly, responsibly, sincerely and respectfully. Some folks who truly change their lives and some overt and covert whistleblowers come from this place of deeper awareness and self-responsibility. They do the right thing.

    Organizations are living entities. But they are not an "entity" in and of themselves. They are collections of people, cells that create the organizational body. Sometimes, many of these cells are cancerous. It’s up to each one of these to choose whether to allow their cancer to spread insider and out, or not. 

    Metaphorically, wearing black will not create healthy change in or out of the corporate environment. Just masks the inevitable.  Change management is first about management of one’s self, then change. One cannot work without the other. "Becoming fully adult and fully human" is about emotional and spiritual (not religious or theological) maturation and that takes work – another option in dealing with obesity.

  4. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Via Mindhacks, I just stumbled across an interesting article on the kind of stick-to-it-ness that you’re talking about, which they term "grit."

    Here’s a link to the Boston Globe article on grit.  (There is good, relevant stuff at the Mindhacks link as well.)

    I’m curious how it relates to your observations in your consulting practice on making real change happen. 

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    These are great contributions to the topic, thank you so much (where do you get your sources!).

    The grit material is brand new to me, and it makes a ton of sense.  Surprised I hadn’t run across it before, many thanks.  I found the IQ comparisons and implications of particular interest.

    It makes me realize, however, there may be two distinct things going on in thinking about change.  Some changes–learning a new language, running a marathon–may be accomplished solely on the basis of grit, as defined in the Boston Globe overview. 

    But there are other aspects that are sometimes involved–as in weight loss–that I suspect require exactly the opposite as well.  Namely, surrender.  As in, you cannot afford to have that one brownie, because it never is one brownie.  It isn’t that 10th brownie that put those pounds on you, it was the first one–because it led to all the others. 

    This seems like a paradox.  If grit and determination and stick-to-it-iveness are all that matter, then I suspect there are many frustrated people out there who are dogged in their determination to fix things–but still can’t get it right.  In my opinion, this is because they persist in thinking they can do it all themselves.

    Certainly this is true in certain areas–you can do it yourself, if you just have the grit, will, determination, etc.  In other areas, I think that same will has to be coupled with an apparent opposite–the willingness to recognize one’s own limitation, and probably to be open to the help of others.

    This seems fairly clear vis a vis certain addictive habits.  I think it’s also true in certain work habits–people who try to solve group problems through individual grit alone, perhaps.

    This doesn’t negate any of the grit literature you so kindly provided; but I think the full story may require some of the humility/surrender stuff as well in certain situations.



  6. Scot Herrick
    Scot Herrick says:

    One of the structural problems with companies trying to change is that management believes "technical" change is the same as "behavioral" change.

    Consider how most new company programs are rolled out. There is the big management meeting, PowerPoints are trotted out to show the new direction, reward programs are put in place and some follow-up is done. Then, one year later, nothing has changed.

    Technically, they did the five steps to change. But, through behaviors, they failed. Didn’t sell why the change was needed. Didn’t show the changed behavior. Didn’t do the hard work of engaging people to not only share in the reason to change but share in the way to make the change.

    Losing weight (as I am finding out!) is tough. It is exercise, eating right, not binging, thinking through your habits, identifying the emotions driving overweight and then changing all of it.

    But companies roll out change like it is a five-slide presentation that says we should eat right, exercise, etc. But not changing the behavior.

    Interesting comments on this one and an interesting analogy. Keep up the good work.

  7. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    While the "surrender" language doens’t resonate for me, I agree with the general idea, Charlie.

    American / Canadian culture seems to gravitate to the idea of "try harder."  In the creative arts, you hit the limits of "try harder" pretty quickly and get into territory where trying harder just means you are getting in your own way.  The same is true for the elite level of a lot of sports.  At some point, to be great, you have to let go, get out of the way, and let it happen.

    Does that relate to corporate change? Maybe to the extent that while you can cultivate the conditions that foster cultural change, you can’t force behavioral change on individuals.  Or maybe it doesn’t relate at all.

    I was thinking of this post today because I just read an article by Peter Bregman at Harvard Business Publishing about how to change corporate culture. Bregman doesn’t have a magic bullet, either, but he does have some specific suggestions on how to encourage organic change.

  8. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Hurray!  I just found a reference I’ve been trying to track down since you published this post.

    Are you familiar with the work of Dr. David Kessler? He’s a lawyer, pedriatician, and author, as well as a former FDA Commissioner.  If his name rings any bells for you, it is most likely because during his time at the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Kessler reknown for his efforts to investigate and regulate the tobacco industry, and his accusation that cigarette makers intentionally manipulated nicotine content to make their products more addictive

    His latest book "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite," based on 7 years of research, explicitly states that:

    • weight loss is not a matter of willpower; and
    • dieting makes things worse instead of better.

    > "One of his main messages is that overeating is not due to an absence of willpower, but a biological challenge made more difficult by the overstimulating food environment that surrounds us. “Conditioned hypereating” is a chronic problem that is made worse by dieting and needs to be managed rather than cured, he said. And while lapses are inevitable, Dr. Kessler outlines several strategies that address the behavioral, cognitive and nutritional factors that fuel overeating."

    (Quote from How the food market captured our brains by Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times, June 22, 2009.)

    . . .

    I bring up Dr. Kessler’s work because the analogy between weight loss and corporate change seems to come up frequently in business writing.  (David Maister’s flagship article, Strategy and the Fat Smoker, springs to mind.)

    But the analogy is based on an obsolete model of weight loss.  The model isn’t backed by current science, but it has entered the hallowed halls of reified common sense.

    If we draw an analogy between corporate change and the up-to-date model of weight loss, one lesson might be that "common-sense solutions" will never be as effective as strategies based on an accurate understanding of how a situation really works.

    I hope you can set a trend in the business world by being the first to throw off the tired old trope of "weight loss just takes willpower."  It is a misconception that damages public health and needs to be put to rest.

  9. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Shaula I think in this case you may be mis-interpreting both David Maister and myself.  Or, to be fair, since you’re a darn good reader, I may not be stating my case clearly.

    I do not disgree with Kesler, I completely agree with him.  Obesity–or most obsessive, addictive behaviors, like smoking or alcoholism–are not at all about lack of willpower.  They are as Kesler says: complex interactions of susceptibility, environments, and habits.  My opening paragraph was, as I said in the blogpost, specifically written to induce the "oh my they have no willpower" response in the reader–a too-subtle way of saying even the judgment itself is a learned response.

    David’s point in his Fat Smoker book is exactly the same.  The answer is not willpower, it is a comprehensive program.  The US has not gotten fatter because of a sudden decline in willpower, but in part because of a massive increase in very carefully designed fat/calorie packaging by the food business, by a conscious strategy of super-sizing portions across the restaurant industry, and because of viewing "diets" as quick-fix solutions along with stomach-stapling and designer drugs. 

    My intended point was that corporate change programs suffer exactly the same one-dimensional magic pill syndrome.  Real change just isn’t that simple.  You can’t reduce it to incentives, or to structures, or to processes.  It’s hard work: it requires belief systems, social customs, history.  You don’t do it alone, and you don’t do it overnight.  It is a group passage, and one that requires real human experience.

    I do not want for a moment to have it thought that I believe "weight loss just takes willpower," and if I wrote a blog that implied that, then I need to fix my writing.  I surely don’t intend to imply that.


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