How to be a Secret Agent (of Change)

Seal of the United States Secret Service

I am a member of the United States Secret Service. Ok, that’s a bit of fake-news; technically, I’m only an honorary junior member of the United States Secret Service. I received this honor when I was 9 because my parents were friends of President Gerald R. Ford and his family, and he ate dinner at our home every Christmas.

My membership in the US Secret Service has nothing to do with my proven ability to drive change in organizations. I have (some) confidence in my ability because I’ve watched others do it (well and very poorly), had excellent training, and I’ve driven change myself many times (well and very poorly).

This post documents some essential tools I’ve collected in my “change toolkit”. By sharing them, I hope more leaders will become even better change agents, or at least be better at dealing with change.

The Conditions for Change Formula

D x V x F > R is a mental model for being an effective change agent. Like most good mental models it provides not only a taxonomy and lexicon but also provides a framework for other tools.

I first learned the D x V x F > R mental model in some leadership training at Amazon, but it’s actually well documented on the Internet.

The combination of Dissatisfaction, Vision, and First steps must be greater than the Resistance to a change in order for the change to occur. Because anything multiplied by zero is zero, if D, V, or F are zero the change will not happen.

D (Dissatisfaction) – This is 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) – First steps in the direction of the vision, the practicality of the change, 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 will increase the value of R in D x V x F > R). You and your coalition members know who these people are. Don’t treat them as adversaries or enemies. Treat them like 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 and 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 sports 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. A Non-Supportive 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.

The 5 Ps: Achieving Focus in Any Endeavor

In other words, don’t waste time and 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.

Build a Coalition

I wish I could find the reference for this, but I was once told that in order for change to happen, there need to be at least four senior stakeholders in the organization who are in complete support of the change: the change agent and three others.

Or maybe it was five?

Anyway, the key is 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.

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. And 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. Find them, explain the problem (the Dissatisfaction), and ask them to help. They will.

Involve all of these folks in the solution design. If it is “their plan” vs “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.

Celebrate Early Victories

Share the plan (does it incorporate all 5 Ps?). Execute the First Steps.

Then celebrate even the smallest victories along the way. Early success in any endeavor is re-enforcing.  

An Example

Here’s a real example to illustrate how these tools work: 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. This was due to the company’s legacy processes for product quality; the processes 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 software engineers couldn’t even spell “unit test”. Clearly, change was needed.

I discovered there was 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 all Supporters. Thus my coalition was formed. One of my new direct reports was Reluctant. It didn’t take long to get him the information he needed to become a Supporter.

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 where folks thought this was OK; after all, it was how it had always been done. There were a few who would clearly be Opposed; I literally had engineers tell me, “I’m an engineer, I don’t write tests.” We would ignore those folks, and if they couldn’t deal with the change, we’d happily help them find new roles elsewhere.

I spent some time coaching team members on how quickly most modern companies can release software. This, as I expected, had a dramatic effect in increasing Dissatsifaction.

Creating a compelling Vision was relatively 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 (which work on different parts of the stack) to define their own version of the Vision (and their own First Steps) that fit their tech’s specifics.

Then my team and I enabled each team to execute their 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.

But we didn’t leave it all to the teams. We (my core coalition of myself and my direct reports and a few Principal Engineers) took the rather dramatic First Step of getting rid of all the manual testers (either convert them to software engineers or help them find other new roles).

Within a short period of time, our ability to ship quickly was pronounced. The team that builds the Control4 UI components, for example, now has a weekly launch cadence and could launch daily if needed. Our ability to measure quality increased as well. And, of course, so did quality itself.

Conclusion

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 where I was effective, I used the tools above.

Please use the comments below to debate or to suggest additional tools and techniques that have worked well for driving change in organizations.

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

Debate this topic with me:

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