Trust, but verify

As your team scales, the volume of work underway grows with it. In a 20-person team, there may be 1,000 hours of work or more being done every single week. In a 100-person team, that number grows to 5,000 hours.

How can you stay close to the important details of decisions being made and initiative executed, when the bandwidth you have to dedicate might represent 1% or less of the total work being done?

Rock group Van Halen is famous for classic tracks like “Jump,” “Hot for Teacher,” and “Runnin’ with the Devil.” They’re also famous for one of the more outlandish provisions in a concert tour contract rider.

In the 1980s, Van Halen’s concert contract required the provision of M&Ms with all brown ones removed backstage at every concert. At first blush, this seemed like a perfect example of spoiled rockers acting like prima donnas.

But, there was something else going on entirely.

As lead singer David Lee Roth explained in an NPR interview, the Van Halen stage show was a large, complex production with technical systems that required careful setup and correct configuration. These technical systems needed to be quickly reassembled each time Van Halen moved to a new concert venue. Failure by the concert promoter to follow the assembly instructions could put the safety of the band members at risk.

Unfortunately, full end-to-end safety inspections took significant time and resources that often weren’t available in the turnaround before each concert. The brown M&M contract clause was deployed as a clever heuristic to gauge how carefully the promoter adhered to the concert contract, which also contained the assembly instructions for the stage equipment. If brown M&M’s were absent backstage, the equipment had probably been set up correctly. If brown M&M’s were present, they’d need a full system inspection before starting the show.

What mechanisms are at your disposal to verify the quality of decisions being made and work being done, when you no longer have the bandwidth to personally verify it all yourself?

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