Spetner: How to address large-scale organizational change

Change is difficult and can sometimes feel like a large rodent is lodged in an organization's throat.

When I was a young account executive, the PR agency I worked at brought in a consultant to upgrade our IT system. The goal was to improve the technology infrastructure and implement new time- and money-saving processes.

The agency had global offices, so this was a complicated and disruptive move, one fraught with risk. The lead consultant overseeing the project was named Felix. Every month he’d give a progress update at our all-hands meeting. He soon became an important fixture in the agency hierarchy.

Felix was a big and imposing man with a deep, booming voice. I didn’t really understand what the technology project was all about, and truth be told, I didn’t really much care. But I did notice that my bosses seemed anxious about the impending change, and they seemed skeptical of Felix and his team. They expressed concern about the amount of money being invested, and whether we’d actually realize the projected outcomes. Perhaps most prominent was a fear that things would go wrong, and bonuses and jobs could be impacted. So the project created a great deal of anxiety.

One morning I ran into Felix in the men’s room. As I was washing my hands, I felt his presence beside me. I looked over to see him at the adjoining sink, looming large, and making me slightly uncomfortable. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to make conversation.

"Felix," I said cheerily, "how’s the technology project going?"

Felix paused, contorted his face for a moment, then spoke. "Well," he boomed, "the company’s a bit like a small snake that has just swallowed a large rodent and peristalsis has set in."

I nodded, dried my hands, and as soon as I got back to my desk began to research peristalsis and snakes. After some searching, I discovered the following: "Peristalsis is a series of muscle contractions that moves food from a snake’s esophagus to its digestive tract."

I was still stumped. I pictured a rattle­snake with a rat bulging in its middle and couldn’t figure out how this applied to our technology upgrade. And while I didn’t understand what Felix meant, I began to quote him in my best Felix voice, often to the delight of co-workers.

Decades later, as the head of communications for a big organization, I helped lead a major change-management initiative and suddenly understood Felix’s strange herpetological reference.

Change is difficult and can sometimes feel like a large rodent is lodged in an organization’s throat. Peristalsis is the process of inching change forward so it can be broken down and digested.

This image came to me very specifically one day when I was leading a training session on how to incorporate technology and analytics into recruiting. During my presentation, two top search consultants spent the entire session reading the newspaper and listlessly looking at emails. They weren’t interested in what I had to say, and they certainly didn’t want to swallow the rodent that management was introducing to the organization’s digestive system.

So I plodded on. I understood that a certain section of our employee population would offer stiff resistance. Our real challenge was demonstrating that the process would improve service and make money. But for the short term, I needed to patiently wait for peristalsis to begin

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