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Van Halen’s brown M&M test

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in Leaders & Managers

During its heyday in the 1980s, the Van Halen band required host arenas to provide a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed.

David Lee Roth, former front man for the band, confirmed the story in his autobiography, Dan and Chip Heath report in their new book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Here’s how Van Halen used M&Ms as an early warning system of potential technical failure.

Every year, the rock band put on dozens of shows, arriving in town with nine 18-wheelers loaded with equipment. The band filled its standard contract with specifications such as “15 amperage voltage sockets at 20-foot spaces, evenly, providing 19 amperes.”

Van Halen buried Article 126 in the middle of its contract, calling for “no brown M&Ms in the backstage area upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

If Roth saw a brown M&M, he’d demand a line check. “Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error,” he wrote in his autobiography. “They didn’t read the contract.”

A brown M&M was a tipoff that the stagehands weren’t paying attention. Roth’s roadies couldn’t spend hours with an amp meter checking the lines. With Article 126 in the contract, they didn’t need to.

Surely, the Heath brothers ask, you won’t let yourself be outsmarted by the guy who sang “Hot for Teacher.” What’s your brown M&M?

— Adapted from “The Telltale Brown M&M,” Dan Heath and Chip Heath, Fast Company.

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