In its 1980s heyday, the band Van Halen became notorious for a clause in its touring contract that demanded a bowl of M&Ms backstage, but with all the brown ones removed. The story is true — confirmed by former lead singer David Lee Roth himself — and it became the perfect, appalling symbol of rock-star-diva behaviour.
Get ready to reverse your perception. Van Halen did dozens of shows every year, and at each venue, the band would show up with nine 18-wheelers full of gear. Because of the technical complexity, the band’s standard contract with venues was thick and convoluted; a typical “article” in the contract might say, “There will be 15 amperage voltage sockets at 20-foot spaces, evenly, providing 19 amperes.”
Van Halen buried a special clause in the middle of the contract. It was called Article 126. It read, ‘There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation’. So when Roth would arrive at a new venue, he’d walk backstage and glance at the M&M bowl. If he saw a brown M&M, he’d demand a line check of the entire production. “Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error,” he wrote, “They didn’t read the contract”.
In other words, Roth was no diva. He was an operations expert. He couldn’t spend hours every night checking the amperage of each socket. He needed a way to assess quickly whether the stagehands at each venue were paying attention — whether they had read every word of the contract and taken it seriously. In Roth’s world, a brown M&M was the canary in the coal mine.
Like Roth, none of us has the time and energy to dig into every aspect of our businesses. But, if we’re smart, we won’t need to. What if we could rig up a system where problems would announce themselves before they arrived? That may sound like wishful thinking, but notice that it’s exactly what Roth achieved. Surely, you won’t be outwitted by the guy who sang “Hot for Teacher.”
Where’s the brown M&M in your business?
Business Advice From Van Halen by Dan Heath and Chip Heath | Fast Company, March 2010