An M & M Tale

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It was known as Article 126.  The infamous clause found in the touring contract for the 1980’s rock band Van Halen.  It was a textbook case of inflated egos and narcissistic personality disorders run amuck.  Or was it?

Article 126 required all host venues to place a bowl of M & M’s backstage, but with all the brown M & M’s removed.  Surprisingly, there was a method to the band’s madness.

Van Halen concerts were “over the top” performances filled with light shows, fireworks and anything else imaginable.  The shows were complicated and difficult to set up correctly.  Van Halen’s frontman, David Lee Roth, was painfully aware of this fact.  A small detail that was missed would snowball into big problems that would threaten the entire performance.

When Roth arrived at a show, he’d immediately head backstage and check to see if the brown M & M’s were removed.  If they were not, he’d demand a line check of the entire production.  Why?  Because he knew the crew did not read the contract thoroughly.  The performance was in jeopardy.

Van Halen worked a busy schedule.  They didn’t have time to micro-manage all levels of the production to ensure its success. The brown M & M system brought problems immediately to the forefront so they could be addressed quickly.  This seemingly trivial request was a great predictor and preventor of problems.

So what in the world does this have to do with us!?

Well, a lot actually.  We are busy people, are we not?  Busy mutli-tasking, focusing on being present for our clients, busy managing programs while balancing our work and personal lives.  What if red flags began popping up everywhere?  What if they gently waved in your direction as if to alert you to trouble?  Would you notice?

Finding sources that tip you off to big problems are important to the growth and sustainability of your business and career.  They give you the freedom to right the ship before real trouble ensues.

Consider the private practitioner who works hard to fill her schedule.  Once this milestone is reached she may relax and focus on her craft.  Until one day she finds there are significant gaps in the schedule.  How did this happen?  Did it happen overnight or were there warning signs?  What if you had a system in place that would warn you ahead of time?  A key indicator that would prompt you to trigger a series of events like conducting a call volume audit, or choosing to dedicate more time to marketing efforts before your client base drops too low.

Or consider the challenges faced by employees, managers and program directors alike.  In their world, billable hours, service outcomes and an ability to change on a dime serve as the backbone of success.  How do you maintain high levels of performance?  How do you ensure you and your team recognize there is trouble on the horizon so you can put a plan in place before a threat becomes too big to handle?

There is value in creating checks and balances for your business, especially when you are altogether preoccuppied with the day to day aspects of work.  After all, it takes dedication and an attention to detail to reach the kind of long lasting success you hope to achieve.  And if the guy in tights singing “Hot For Teacher” can find a solution for his business, I’m quite certain it’s a doable process for each and every one of us.

The question becomes, where’s the brown M & M in your business?


* Facts and research used for this post are attributed to the work done by Chip & Dan Heath.  Authors of Made to Stick and Switch


  1. Tamarisk  April 13, 2010

    I had no idea that was where the whole M&M thing came from! How cool!

    On a more serious note, I think the idea of paying attention to the flags along the way is important, thank you for raising it. I suppose it’s about being putting the practice of mindfulness into the business setting. That, and establishing systems that mean you never let things like this slide. I’m not a natural organiser…couple that with being a bit of magpie about new things/technologies etc and it can quickly lead to chaos!

  2. Dan  April 13, 2010

    What a great article – I recently read the Van Halen M&M story in Entrepreneur Magazine, but didn’t connect it to our profession the way you just did – THANKS!

  3. David  April 13, 2010


    The idea of putting systems in place that you don’t have to think about because they work behind the scenes really resonates with me. I can be off in a thousand directions and miss some key things that need tending to from time to time. When I read about the M & M story I found it to be such a great example!


    Glad you enjoyed it as I attempted to show how it is relevant to our profession.


  4. Cordes Simpson  April 15, 2010

    Great story! It has made me more aware of my own tendency to skip the details!! Know any good and inexpensive webmasters out there?

  5. David Diana  April 15, 2010

    I do have quite a few great web resources and also a few special promotional deals some web companies have given me that might benefit you and others.

    I’ll get those together shortly!

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