The Wisdom of Brown M&M’s

You have probably heard the old saying that “the devil is in the details.” Well I don’t know exactly where the devil might be at any given time but he’s not in the details. What’s in the details is success. Little things matter, often they matter a lot. 


Van Halen was the first big name band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. Instead of Detroit Michigan for instance they would do a concert in Lansing or Grand Rapids. They would pull up to the venue with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard for that kind of arena was three trucks, max. 


Their show was a huge production and their standard contract included a rider with a ton of technical specifications, some were meant to improve the production but many were meant to provide a safe environment for both the band and the audience. 


The rider included a clause that required bowls of M&M’s to be placed in the band’s dressing room and backstage. Also buried deep inside the rider was this item: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”


Now the band took a lot of heat for that requirement and as the story goes David Lee Roth would go ballistic upon seeing a brown M&M in the bowl. It made the whole band seem like a bunch of spoiled prima-donnas. 


But there was method to their apparent madness. 


With literally thousands of technical specifications in their rider they wanted a quick way of determining whether or not the venue had throughly read and complied with the requirements for a safe and successful show. 


When the band would walk backstage or into their dressing room and see brown M&M’s, they knew that details had been missed. They knew that if one detail had been missed then it was very likely that other details had been missed too and some of those details could get someone seriously injured or even killed.


Every time they saw brown M&M’s they went through the rider with the venue in great detail and always found things that were missed. When they didn’t see brown M&M’s they were able to do a much briefer review of the rider and literally never saw anything else missed.


This rock and roll group, notorious for excessive partying and “other” stuff besides their music developed a fool proof way of determining whether or not the venue was paying attention to the little things. 


Val Halen knew that the little things make a big difference. They knew that small problems have a way of becoming bigger. They knew that success was in the details. 


How about you? Do you settle for “close enough” when excellent is within reach? Does the lazy part of you (yes, almost all of us have a lazy part) “settle” for good enough because great seems like a little too much work? 


The most successful people know that either you pay attention to the details now or you will absolutely pay the consequences later. 

What are you paying today?

There Are No Devils in the Details

It’s funny how some sayings can be so wrong. I hear people say that the “devil is in the details” a lot. The truth is, it’s almost exactly the opposite. What you find in the details is not the devil but success. Success is in the details. When you pay attention to the details they pay you back with success, often great success.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of finding success in the details:

Perhaps the most “famous” rider in the music industry was the rider attached to Van Halen’s standard performance contract. It is not unusual in the music industry for a particular artist’s rider to be even bigger and more complex than their actual contract. Van Halen’s rider stated that there must be a bowl of M&M’s in the band’s dressing room and that all (as in every single one) of the brown M&M’s must be removed.

The presence of even a single brown M&M in that bowl would be sufficient legal cause for Van Halen to peremptorily cancel a scheduled appearance without advanced notice.

The M&Ms provision was included in Van Halen’s rider not as an act of caprice, but because it served a practical purpose: to provide an easy way of determining whether the technical specifications of the rider had been thoroughly read (and complied with).

Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. These were the kind of places that had little or no experience hosting this type of performance. The band would pull up to an arena with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, maximum.

The rider included pages and pages of very elaborate rigging guidelines and still more pages of highly technical specifications. If any of these guidelines or specifications were missed, there could be complications during the show and potentially someone could be seriously hurt.

When the band walked backstage and saw a brown M&M in the bowl they knew there was almost certainly going to be trouble with other specifications within the contract.

Whoever had hired the band had either not read the contract or had just decided to ignore this “little” detail and that was a sign to the band that every specification and guideline had to be double-checked before the show could begin. In his autobiography, Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth explained that every time the band saw a brown M&M in the bowl they also found something bigger, something much more critical that had also been missed.

Van Halen never canceled a concert because of brown M&M’s in a bowl but they did use what they called “a little test” to determine if bigger things might have been missed.

That true story is a lesson in how little details matter, if you miss enough of them, sometimes if you miss even one of them, you may never even have the opportunity to accomplish the bigger things.

Never be afraid of what “people” might say about you. Let them call you anal, let them call you obsessed, and let your success speak for itself. Pay attention to the details today or you’ll almost certainly pay the consequences tomorrow.

The lesson here for leaders is this: never forget to celebrate and reward the little things. They matter and when they, and the people who do them are forgotten or ignored, then you can bet the bigs things will almost certainly suffer as well.