How to be a Secret Agent (of Change)

Seal of the United States Secret Service

Great leaders don’t let changes happen to them. Instead, they become skilled at driving change. Leaders effective in driving change are known as agents of change or change agents. This post explains a tool called D x V x F > R that will enable you to become a great agent of change.

What does this have to do with Secret Agents? Nothing. It’s just that I am an honorary junior member of the United States Secret Service, and this let me create a pithy title for this post.

The Conditions for Change Formula

D x V x F > R is tool for effectively driving change in organizations. Like most good tools, it is based on a clear mental model with a strong taxonomy and lexicon. The mental model is represented as a formula (D x V x F > R) that reads as:

“The combination of Dissatisfaction, Vision, and First steps must be greater than the Resistance to change in order for the change to occur. Anything multiplied by zero is zero, therefore if Dissatisfaction, Vision, or the First Steps are zero the change will not happen.”

  • D (Dissatisfaction) – The level of dissatisfaction with the current situation or state.
  • V (Vision) – A vision of the desired state or of a positive possibility; more than the absence of pain associated with the present situation.
  • F (First Steps) – The first steps in the direction of the vision; the practicality of the change; or the plan for the change.
  • R (Resistance) – Resistance to the change or the cost of changing.

Resistors to Change are Customers

Seek out the individuals in the organization who are likely to be resistant to change (those who increase the value of R). You know who these people are. Don’t treat them as adversaries or enemies. Treat them as customers.

What do we do with customers? We obsess over them. We find out what makes them tick. We understand their pain. Then we adjust our plan to address that pain. Resistance to change is not always bad; it can provide insight into the new Vision.

In other words, actively seek out resistors and focus-group the hell out of them. In my experience, doing so early helps crystalize the Vision and helps identify the First Steps. It also preps them for change.

Inventorying your customer base (your employees, bosses, or other stakeholders) will also enable segmentation which will enable better prioritization of efforts…

Bucketize Stakeholders and Prioritize

Whether the change impacts 10 people or 1,000, it is important to segment the people impacted by the change in order to determine where to focus energy. Using a soccer* analogy, here are the four buckets I’ve used:

  • Supporter – These are your season ticket holders who eagerly join the March to the Match. A supporter is already bought into the Vision and is eager to take the First Steps.
  • Reluctant – These folks enjoy soccer* and will go to a match if asked but would normally rather watch baseball. Reluctant employees may have mild concerns about the details of the change. But they will fold like a cheap lawn chair with just a little information.
  • Non-Supportive – These folks say they dislike soccer. Non-Supportive stakeholders need more information and need to feel like they are being listened to. They account for the majority of Resistance.
  • Opposed – These people sit in the visiting team’s supporters section. They see the change as something they cannot tolerate. To them, the change is perceived as a threat to a currently held mental model or they believe the consequences of the change will be intolerable. It’s possible to turn them, but they are usually the folks who continue to oppose the change over time.

Treat each of these buckets uniquely. Prioritize the time and energy you spend thusly:

  1. Non-Supportive
  2. Reluctant
  3. Supporter
  4. Opposed

Remember what prioritization means:

The order in which things get done and the mass applied to each. Higher priority parts of a plan get done first with more people focused on them. Lower priority things get done later with fewer resources applied until higher priority things are done.” – From The 5 Ps: Achieving Focus in Any Endeavor

Build a Coalition

One leader, alone, will never a) expose enough Dissatisfaction, b) create a powerful enough Vision, or c) drive effective First Steps to overcome real Resistance. There must be at least four senior stakeholders in the organization who are in complete support of the change: the change agent and three others (I learned this rule from Qi Lu at Microsoft, and it’s proven true in my experience).

Just as a tech startup will never get its 10th customer without first getting its 1st, a change agent will never overcome Resistance without finding her first coalition member. If the Vision crafted between the first two members is strong enough, invariably a 3rd will be found. And so on…

As the coalition grows and engages, the amount (and flavor) of Dissatisfaction with the status quo will also increase. Likewise, the Vision will become refined. And First Steps will be identified. But the Coalition is not complete until members are added from all ranks. This includes folks way down the org chart in the org. You know who these people are… they are the managers, and individual contributors who you know are adaptable and always want to help (they index high on Ownership). Find them, explain the problem (the Dissatisfaction), and ask them to help. They will.

Do Not Waste Time or Energy on The Opposed. Do enough to discover if the deep differences are perceived or real. Absolutely listen to their concerns (perhaps they have data you don’t have), but don’t waste time arguing or attempting to change their minds.

Involve the people in the coalition in the solution design. If it is “their plan” instead of “your plan” the Vision will be stronger and the First Steps will be more effective. You’ll also have a larger army of communicators (see below).

I have found it enormously helpful to teach the D x V x F > R mental model to potential coalition members. By doing so, everyone has a common framework for communication and thinking.

Repeatedly and Consistently Share the Vision

If you can’t write the vision down clearly, you’re not thinking clearly and you don’t actually have a Vision. So write it down. The 5 Ps can work well for structuring not only the Vision (Purpose and Principles) but also First Steps (Priorities and Plan).

Once you and your coalition are bought into the Vision be ruthlessly consistent about sharing it. Overshare and over-communicate. Become a broken record.

Celebrate Early Victories

Even before First Steps are taken start celebrating even the smallest victories that lead towards the Vision. For example, if there are already people in the organization who are behaving “correctly” give them positive feedback in ways that others can see. Once the real First Steps are taken, make a big deal about any person or team that is in line with the Vision. Send public thank-you emails. Point out great behavior in meetings. Etc…

Celebrating early success in any endeavor is self re-enforcing.  

Just Do It – Take the First Steps

As soon as the Vision is clear and the First Steps are identified, start executing. I’ve found there’s no need to wait until you’ve sufficiently identified all the Dissatisfaction or Resistance to get started.

An Example

When I joined Control4 in 2018 I found that it took up to 4 months to ship new features in the Control4 Smart Home OS. The company’s legacy processes for product quality were mostly waterfall-based and manual testing was required for each launch. A full test pass took upwards of 8 weeks. There was very little automated testing and most engineers couldn’t even spell “unit test”. Clearly, change was needed.

I discovered significant Dissatisfaction within the company on this topic. I interviewed my engineering leaders and dozens of individual contributor developers. Nobody liked how long it took to address customer issues. All of my direct reports, but one, were hungry to change this. They were Supporters. One of my direct reports was Reluctant. It didn’t take long to get him the information he needed to become a Supporter. I also easily found a few IC engineers who were deeply frustrated because they knew the company could do better.

I gave each of these people a tutorial on D x V x F > R and asked them to be part of the coalition. Thus my coalition was formed.

As we dug into the rest of the organization, we filled our Supporter, Reluctant, Non-Supporter, and Opposed buckets up. There were far more Reluctants and Non-Supporters than any others. And there were clearly pockets of folks who thought the status quo was OK; after all, it was how it had always been done. There were a few who were clearly Opposed; I literally had engineers tell me, “I’m an engineer, I don’t write tests.” We ignored those folks; if they couldn’t deal with the change, we’d happily help them find new roles elsewhere (which we ended up doing).

I spent more time coaching team members on how quickly most modern companies can release software. I showed them how good it could be. As I expected, this had a dramatic effect on increasing Dissatisfaction.

Articulating a compelling Vision was simple: “ship new features in weeks instead of months by replacing manual testing with automated testing”. We involved stakeholders throughout the organization by asking each team to define their own version of the Vision (and their own First Steps) that fit their tech’s specifics.

Then I pushed each team to execute their localized First Steps. One team that was already fairly agile just mandated every pull request include unit tests. We very visibly celebrated early victories as teams made progress to further demonstrate to other teams how well it could work.

We didn’t leave it all to the teams. My core coalition of myself and my direct reports took the rather dramatic First Step of getting rid of all manual testers (by either converting them to software engineers or helping them find new roles elsewhere).

Within months, customers started to notice we were releasing faster with higher quality. The change was deep and lasting. The team that builds the Control4 UI components, for example, now has a weekly launch cadence and can launch hourly if needed. The team that built the firmware for Control4’s lighting devices was able to find bugs earlier and further upstream. The company’s engineering organization continues to operate using the mantra “Continuous deployment with automatic rollback.”


Change is hard. I’ve seen change implemented poorly more than I’ve seen it done well. I’ve blown it more times than I’ve gotten it right. But the times when I was effective, I used the D x V x F > R tool.

I am available to do 1:1 or group coaching on driving change and other leadership topics. See Advising, Coaching, and Consulting for details.

See also:

* Yes, it is also called football in some parts of the world, but remember, it was the British who coined the term soccer.

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