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Corporate Fasting?

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Is there a silver lining in all of the pain and suffering associated with corporate America's downsizing diet? I had some time to consider this during a bucolic weekend on a Sonoma ranch.

I spent the last few days drinking exclusively organic grape juice and a variety of medicinal teas while not allowing a solid morsel to pass by my lips for more than 72 hours. For nearly a decade, I've been celebrating this ritual with a few close friends as a means of spiritual and physical cleansing. We've found that a unique bond seems to grow from experiencing this together. Fasting has long been a practice in all kinds of religious communities, but the benefits of fasting are vigorously argued within the medical and health community. My purpose in writing this blog isn't to endorse this practice, but more to ruminate whether some lemonade can be made out of the lemons we're all being served with this treacherous economy.

Starving yourself would seem to be the domain of Hollywood starlets and maniacal monks, but CEOs and business leaders have been doing the corporate equivalent of this for over a year now. Unfortunately, most companies have taken an unconscious approach to this purging after a few years of Vegas-style bingeing. What if the act of willfully cutting your corporate expenses was made in a more conscious fashion such that it could result in long-term positive results for your organization?

Let me outline four positives beyond the obvious corporate waistline reduction which can come from a "corporate fast" (I promise you I don't do this juice fast to lose weight and companies don't have to just look at their better bottom-line as the only good outcome of their fasting):

(1) As mentioned above, one ironic outcome can be a bonding of those people who remain in the organization. In my book PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow, I wrote about my company's experience of navigating the dot-com crash and the fact that our corporate culture and sense of resolve actually improved during this stress test. In "Good to Great," Jim Collins wrote that there's a lasting comradeship that occurs when a collection of employees band together to weather an economic storm. In his role model companies, he found that the fond memories senior executives had often revolved around how they had made it through a difficult time and that "the people we interviewed from good-to-great companies clearly loved what they did, largely because they loved who they did it with."

(2) Glucose is the body's primary fuel source and, yet, during a fast, the system instead taps into glycogen in the liver as a means of providing sufficient resources to run your body. This innovative biological process -- which can also burn protein and fat, and muscle if you're not careful -- forces you to be efficient in how you burn energy and prods your system out of its status quo. Yes, this is another way of saying you're liver is detoxing, but one great benefit that comes out of this is that you feel fresher, lighter, and more alert. Organizational execution and process innovation would be well-served if they could take on these qualities in a downturn.

(3) The physical effects on a juice fast are fascinating. The first day is always the toughest as you're breaking a habit, but by the second day, your hunger subsides, your thinking becomes more clear (both the whites and hazel color in my eyes become more crisp), and you really do start appreciating the essence, as opposed to the extraneous, in life. There's a laser-like sharpness and focus in one's awareness. Complicated corporate strategy could use this kind of natural editing, especially in a downturn when prioritization is so important.

(4) Fasts are defined as occurring when you haven't ingested and digested food in 8-12 hours. That's why our first meal of the day is called "break fast." My first meal after a three day fast tastes as good as anything I've ever been served at a Michelin-rated restaurant. Scarcity breeds appreciation. In the last few years, we were more focused on gratification than gratitude, whether it was in how we spent our money as consumers or in how we operated as businesses. A downturn can help you see some of the less obvious assets of your company which might have been hidden during the go-go growth years. There is something elemental to be learned in a corporate fast that, hopefully, can be sustained as the economy picks up again.

In sum, this downturn can feel punishing or enlightening. You can choose what you want to take from this experience. Just remember that DESPAIR = SUFFERING - MEANING. The level of corporate despair that your organization is likely to feel will be inversely proportional to the amount of wisdom, learning, and meaning that you will discover from this crash diet you've found yourself on.

Chip Conley is the Founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and the author of PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow.