I’ve been on the road a lot over the past few months and in a bunch of different countries, which is both good and bad. It kinda sucks being away from the comfort of your family and friends, but of course the upside of being in new places and cultures is that you get a new perspective on things that you otherwise might not get. And it also means that I’ve had lots of time to read whilst on planes (more on that in a second).
I’ve been doing interviews and writing for various different media outlets to help promote the book, which is partly why this supposed fortnightly newsletter has become more like bi-monthly! In another newsletter I might link to some of the articles, but for now here’s a quick chat I did with Peter Switzer on Sky Business News last week. Peter is a very affable fellow, he’s a financial commentator and very easy to talk with. A bit of the way through I realised I’d forgotten I was meant to be on there to plug the book. Check it out here:
But anyway, back to the reading* I’ve been doing whilst on planes. Lots of interesting books and lots of interesting articles, none more so than this one here.
It’s a pearler of an article written by Ian Leslie for The Guardian, entitled The Sugar Conspiracy. Although I recommend you read the article in it’s entirety, Leslie’s piece can be summarised as follows.
In 1955 US President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, and rather than keep it from public attention his doctor gave a press conference the next day in which he told Americans how they could avoid heart disease: by stopping smoking and reducing fat and cholesterol intake. In an ensuing article, Eisenhower’s doctor referred to the work of a charismatic yet combatative nutritionist called Ancel Keys who had conducted a large but highly subjective study across 7 countries in which evidence was gained to support the hypothesis that fat and cholesterol lead to heart disease and obesity.
As Leslie describes, “the president, physician and the scientist formed a reassuring chain of male authority” and the idea that fatty foods were unhealthy became the norm. This norm became even more normal when in 1980 the US government issued its first ever dietary guidelines. The central tenant upon which the guidelines were based was the need to decrease saturated fats and cholesterol and replace “steak and sausages for pasta and rice, butter with margarine and vegetable oils, eggs with muesli, and milk with low-fat milk or orange juice”, as Leslie puts it. This then led to food manufacturers making many things low and non-fat, which in turn led to the increased use of additives in our food such as sugar and trans-fats.
Parts of the scientific community remained unconvinced about the notion pushed by Keys and Eisenhower’s doctor. The most prominent doubter, very much aware that sugar is processed in the liver (where it turns to fat and enters the bloodstream), was the UK’s leading nutritionist John Yudkin.** However, Yudkin was somewhat introverted and whenever he made his disagreement to Keys’ ideas known, the more gregarious Keys would always come out swinging in self defence and label Yudkin’s ideas nonsense—and so Yudkin kept quite.
It’s only in recent times of course that Yudkin’s argument is gaining widespread traction, and when you look at the data, there’s a pretty clear correlation (and science supporting the causation). As Leslie says, “look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the US, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980’s, it takes off like an aeroplane”. And it’s not just in the US. In Britain and Australia, it’s estimated that more than 60% of the population are obese or overweight.
So how does all of this relate to organisations?
Well I reckon the same kind of thing has happened with regard to the way we think our organisations should function and operate.
We take our businesses and organisations and their linear, hierarchical structures and goal and outcome-orientated approach to the world of work as a given, because just like the dietary guidelines, it’s all we’ve ever known.
Upon entering the western education system at five or six years of age, the linear, sequential, and modular approach becomes engrained in us. Upon finishing our education, we then enter the workforce which uses exactly the same approach.
(And then add to this, especially for those who go on to undertake further studies such as an MBA, our obsession with case studies and learning from past greats.)
But just because things may have worked in the past, doesn’t mean that they will work into the future, especially a future which is becoming increasingly uncertain and complex as technology changes the world around us.
So remember, just because a set of guidelines or a group of people tell you how things must be, that’s not necessarily the case. There are other ways.
Want some more insight into a new way of dealing with uncertainty and complexity? (of course you do) Then check out my book The Light and Fast Organisation.
*How to find really good material on the web? My favourite internet article curation tool is pocket, and I can’t recommend it to you enough—over a quick period of time it learns your reading and topic preferences and provides quality articles.
**So what is the scientific theory behind Yudkin’s work? Leslie describes it as follows:
“Far from being an inert dumping ground for excess calories, fat tissue operates as a reserve energy supply for the body. Its calories are called upon when glucose is running low – that is, between meals, or during fasts and famines. Fat takes instruction from insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar. Refined carbohydrates break down at speed into glucose in the blood, prompting the pancreas to produce insulin. When insulin levels rise, fat tissue gets a signal to suck energy out of the blood, and to stop releasing it. So when insulin stays high for unnaturally long, a person gains weight, gets hungrier, and feels fatigued. Then we blame them for it… obese people are not fat because they are overeating and sedentary – they are overeating and sedentary because they are fat, or getting fatter.”