Change or Die

30 Apr ’05

I’ve just read the most extraordinary Fast Company article (thanks, Robert Paterson!) on the behavioural roots in people and organizations of resistance to needed change.

One of the themes of the article is our resistance to changing our diets and lifestyles even as we know they are slowly killing us, and the author provides some insights into the work of Dr. Dean Ornish, an expert on the effects of diet and exercise on the heart, and the author of several well regarded books on the topic. Someone close to me had a severe heart problem 15 years ago and the Ornish program changed his life. There is much more in the article, but this theme in particular resonated with me.

A peek at what’s inside:

What if you were given that choice? For real. What if it weren’t just the hyperbolic rhetoric that conflates corporate performance with life and death? Not the overblown exhortations of a rabid boss, or a slick motivational speaker, or a self-dramatizing CEO. We’re talking actual life or death now. Your own life or death. What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn’t, your time would end soon — a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?

You wouldn’t change.

Don’t believe it? You want odds? Here are the odds, the scientifically studied odds: nine to one. That’s nine to one against you. How do you like those odds?

This revelation unnerved many people in the audience last November at IBM’s “Global Innovation Outlook” conference. The company’s top executives had invited the most farsighted thinkers they knew from around the world to come together in New York and propose solutions to some really big problems. They started with the crisis in health care, an industry that consumes an astonishing $1.8 trillion a year in the United States alone, or 15% of gross domestic product. A dream team of experts took the stage, and you might have expected them to proclaim that breathtaking advances in science and technology — mapping the human genome and all that — held the long-awaited answers. That’s not what they said. They said that the root cause of the health crisis hasn’t changed for decades, and the medical establishment still couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

Dr. Raphael “Ray” Levey, founder of the Global Medical Forum, an annual summit meeting of leaders from every constituency in the health system, told the audience, “A relatively small percentage of the population consumes the vast majority of the health-care budget for diseases that are very well known and by and large behavioral.” That is, they’re sick because of how they choose to live their lives, not because of environmental or genetic factors beyond their control. Continued Levey: “Even as far back as when I was in medical school” — he enrolled at Harvard in 1955 — “many articles demonstrated that 80% of the health-care budget was consumed by five behavioral issues.” Levey didn’t bother to name them, but you don’t need an MD to guess what he was talking about: too much smoking, drinking, eating, and stress, and not enough exercise.

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