The power in a bowl of M&M’s

Founder's Mentality - The power of M&M'sThe story of heavy-metal band Van Halen and the brown M&M’s is legend in rock-and-roll circles. But in the hands of authors Dan and Chip Heath, it has also become surprisingly relevant for business leaders.

As the story goes, Van Halen had a food rider in its contract demanding that a bowl of M&M’s candy—with all the brown ones removed—be placed in the band’s dressing room. The clause quickly became emblematic of celebrity excess (especially given the band’s reputation for bad behavior).

But quoting from the biography of lead singer David Lee Roth, the Heath brothers provide a much more interesting explanation in their book, They argue that the M&M’s demand was not evidence of rock-star frivolity, but a tool to make sure venue management had read and honored the terms of the contract. For Roth this was critical. The contract contained serious technical and safety requirements that ensured Van Halen could deliver an outstanding performance for their fans. A glance at the M&M’s bowl was a fast way to check whether the concert organizer was paying attention and, if not, to demand a review of all specifications. Those cases, Roth said, “[g]uaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error.”

As the Roth/Heath version of the story has spread, brown M&M’s have become a great management metaphor for “proxy measures” that alert you in advance to bad things. As one blogger said: “I’ve always liked the brown M&M’s story. The whole idea of project signaling—simple metrics that can give you a forewarning of bad things that will likely come to pass …” I encourage my clients to define that elusive metric in their businesses, and I find myself collecting brown M&M’s stories. A good one comes from Ho Ren Hua, who runs the Banyan Tree spas and luxury resorts in China.

We introduced Ren to our readers earlier this year and he spoke at our recent DM 100 . He is a great student of business and a passionate advocate of the Founder’s MentalitySM. His brown M&M’s story is about making sure that his company delivers flawlessly on its customer promise of extraordinary service. As he told me:

“This demands that I travel from hotel to hotel reviewing the Banyan Tree vision with our people and sharing experiences on how that vision is delivered every day to our customers. Over the years, I’ve started to see patterns with these visits and I’ve begun to notice that if X or Y things are done right, then I can generally be very confident that our customer experiences in that hotel will be brilliant. Paradoxically, one of the most useful proxies for a great customer experience is actually ‘back of house.’

“Rather than start with the front, i.e., the hotel rooms, the reception areas, I start in the back of house. I look at how the hotel staff takes care of their own space (this is what they do between themselves ‘when no one is looking.’) And what I find is that if that space is maintained with pride, then I am almost always delighted by what is happening in the front. Equally, if little things are going wrong there, it is often a proxy for little things going wrong out front. Of course, I focus my time on our customers, but I find a quick tour of the back of house gives me an instant read on whether we’re delighting our customers every second of every day or whether I might have to explore further. It is amazing what you uncover by looking at a messy staff bulletin board.”

That’s it. Leadership is about simplicity. Leadership is a journey to identify the one, two or three things to focus on, so that other things fall into place. For Van Halen, a little bowl of M&M’s can reveal insights into that night’s performance for an audience. For Banyan Tree, a back-office bulletin board, far away from a guest room, can alert management to future customer issues.

Leaders of insurgents spend a lot of time telling stories about their “rules of thumb”—that is, the little things they focus on to bring order to the big things. We’ve told stories of hot tea, order books and packaging to show this obsession. Too often, leaders of incumbents try to process an ocean of data, believing somehow that because their organizations can generate a million metrics, their organizations are best led with a million metrics. They fall into a trap we’ve highlighted here many times—the belief that the opposite of simple is advanced, and that advanced is always good. The truth is, the opposite of simple is more often complex, and complexity can suck the life and soul out of your people.

Here’s to the power and simplicity of a bowl of M&M’s and a messy bulletin board. Here’s to you finding your M&M’s metric.

This entry was posted in Frontline obsession, Lost voices from the front line by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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