Van Halen famously had a clause in their contract that the band be provided a bowl of M&Ms backstage with absolutely no brown M&Ms. While often cited as an example of Rock ‘N Roll excess it was instead a shrewd management technique. As one of the first bands to bring complicated productions into small market venues they needed to know the venue had followed the contract to the letter. In the words of lead singer David Lee Roth: “…if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl… well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

As a manager I think of this story often. The larger the scale the more management becomes a stochastic job. It is impossible to know that everyone is doing the right thing all the time. We have to approximate it by randomly sampling the breadth of it. This is why dogfooding is so important. This is why skip-level 1:1s are so important.

And when you find a proverbial brown M&M, you have to “line-check the entire production”. You may find out it really was just one random error. No harm, no foul. But more often than not you find a series of correlated errors that require correction. Smoke doesn’t always mean fire, but it often does.

I feel compelled to explain this management technique because it can sometimes seem stressful to the teams involved. They might wonder why I’m suddenly and intensely interested in some specific aspect of their work. They may fear I have ulterior motives. I don’t. I’m just looking for M&Ms.