Forks over knives

Writing my new book on organizational health has made me even more aware of the parallels between organizational and individual health. So when I saw the documentary Forks over Knives which is about eating a completely plant based diet in order to avoid, as far as possible common chronic and degenerative diseases including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and strokes, I wondered whether some of the common 'diets' of organizations – increasing shareholder value, looking at short-term quarterly results, revering charismatic leaders, kneeling at the feet of management gurus, and so on – which lead to taking short cuts, ethical misdemeanors, jaded management, vast expenditure on not very much, and other chronic organizational diseases (ok I'm wildly oversimplifying) could be reversed by something equivalent to a plant based diet.

My first thought on the plant based diet was that it was fine for food savvy people who'd seen the documentary, read Michael Pollan's books, who could afford fresh fruits and vegetables, and who had access to sources of this type of food. I wondered how the mass of people who suffer from 'food insecurity' – a euphemism for 'not enough money to buy food' used here – would fare. It seems that they are the ones most likely to go for the cheap and easily available fast food options that offer none of the benefits of a plant based diet. I emailed Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, one of the documentary's key presenters on this topic and got a very nice reply with some helpful hints.

A low-income single person in the US who fulfills eligibility requirements gets an average of $133.79 for food (set in 2010) per month, under SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). This is around $31.50 per week. I decided I would spend the first week of the new year seeing how I would fare on $31.50 – rather as an organization that has to downsize by some massive amount might approach the challenge. Indeed I thought it would be rather a good challenge for organizations. "If you had to slash your budget by 75% or thereabouts how would you ensure that you could thrive and meet your business goals." (Of course, this type of thing may happen for government departments in the US, UK and elsewhere so perhaps worth thinking about).

In the normal course of events I don't think too much about how much I spend on food. I am not doing the regular quarterly reviews of operating processes or the 'planned abandonment' exercises I advocate in the organization design work I do. I know almost daily I buy a coffee at nearly $4.50, and I don't take my own lunch to work but buy it in a local deli. I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to do that. So like a successful organization that rarely reviews operating processes or looks for different ways of continuously improving I was blinded to risks of circumstances suddenly changing, developing resilience to cope in a crisis, and so on.

With this in mind, I thought a little practical scenario work would be good for me. I planned the sudden drop in income a week ahead of time, roughing out my menu and shopping around to find out the best places (within walking distance) to buy the items. My daughter amused me by seeming shocked that I was planning to eat the same thing every day. My rationale for this – I could buy a relatively nutritious basket of goods without having any waste. I put my menu through which provides a nutritional analysis of all foods and discovered that if I lived on this diet for a longish period I would apparently be slightly deficient in some nutrients. SNAP does not count vitamin supplements as food. This seems shortsighted as through a different program people who get sick will receive medical attention at often very high cost. An organizational parallel here is not looking at the whole system but focusing on single elements of it.

In the event my planned menu was not exactly the same as my actual menu, which indicated a certain ability to adapt on my part. For organizations this is one of the most useful organizational traits to demonstrate. Anyway my daily diet comprised

Breakfast: oatmeal with edamame beans
Lunch: peanut butter sandwich (wholewheat bread) with marmite
Snack: banana
Dinner: soup made from black beans or baked beans, sweet corn or other frozen veg, salsa
Before bed: cup of soy milk with cocoa powder.

Beyond the nightcap of hot cocoa I only drank water (but see below on this). I went from Monday to Sunday, seven days, spending a total of $20.91, so have in hand just under $10, and I have left ¼ jar peanut butter, third of a loaf of bread, equivalent of one packet frozen veg. But had I not been sick for the first day, eating nothing and felt off color the next I think I would have exhausted my supplies.

So what did I learn from this exercise?
1. Accessibility to cheap, nutritious food is essential. I live in a city with supermarkets that have bulk food, special offers, coupons, and all within walking distance from my apartment.
2. Knowledge of what constitutes a healthy diet is critical – I adjusted some of my purchases to minimize nutrient deficiency but this is not easy on a tight budget.
3. It takes time to shop around, plan ahead, think through choices.
4. It's easy to be mindless about the choices when I have the money. I think I'll be more conscious in the future about what I'm spending.
5. There are sources of free food to look out for – supermarket samples, a sudden work event with food, etc. (this happened a couple of times in the week but I had to be careful not to compromise the plant based diet).
6. Social events are difficult if people are expected to pay their way. (I was invited for a drink and said I was trying out this experiment and the invitee said she would buy the drink, which she did, but that raised ethical questions or at least a moral dilemma about reciprocity).
7. There are choices to be made about what's in or out of the experiment. Are 'legacy' cupboard items ok? I had decided not – that I would work from a zero base. But in the event I cracked on cocoa powder that was in my cupboard to have in the hot milk, and on Marmite which I'd brought back from the UK last time I was there. (I rationalized this by saying that the $10 I had over could have paid for these anyway).
8. It was not half as difficult as I expected to stick to the menu and not buy anything outside it.
9. Bringing my own lunch to work makes good economic sense.
10. It was, as my daughter predicted, rather boring. I started to wish for chips with mushy peas as sold in the chippy in Swinegate, York UK (why this I don't know, and sadly nothing remotely similar is available here in DC).

In answer to two predictable questions: a) I did not lose any weight on this regime b) I am not planning another week of this right now (and just to repeat count myself extremely fortunate that I do not have to) so I find myself already slipping back to a cup of morning tea, looking forward to a coffee, and inviting my friend for a drink.

Some organizational lessons that could be drawn from this individual experiment:
1. Review and planned abandonment of some of the known ways of operating do open up better and more efficient/effective ways of operating and help preparation for the unforeseen.
2. Prevention of issues arising takes more conscious choices and planning than reaction but has a higher chance of being a better investment in the longer term.
3. Legacies from the past have a bearing on current actions and can be rationalized. (Legacies and rationalizations may or may not be helpful but they are forces to contend with).
4. Dire circumstances force action that may have good outcomes
5. If there is no real incentive or supporting infrastructure to carry on in the new ways then things snap back to previous ways.

What individual experiments could you try out that might inform the way you think about your organization design work?