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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Early Warning Signals

As @bmichelson reports, rockstar Dave Lee Roth used to demand a bowl of M&Ms in his dressing room, with all the brown ones removed. Why? Because he wanted to test the venue's attention to detail. If they couldn't even get the sweets right, how could he trust them to correctly install the complex wiring and lighting required for the gig? If the test failed, what that triggered wasn't a childish tantrum but righteous anger and a thorough test of everything else before the band would go on the stage. [Business Advice from Van Halen, Fast Company March 2010 via Elemental Links] As @bmichelson points out, this can be regarded as a form of instrumentation.

I have seen a similar trick described somewhere else, possibly in one of Mark McCormack's books. When discussing a major event with a large hotel, casually ask for orange juice for all participants, freshly squeezed on the premises that morning. If hotel management appears to regard this requirement as trivial, then this is a warning that it may not take the other requirements seriously either.

Obviously these tricks only work when they are secret. As soon as people realise that these tricks are being used as tests or predictors of performance or quality, then they will alter (distort) their behaviour accordingly. (I'm imagining a scene from a Spinal Tap remake in which a rival rock band sends its roadies to tip off the venue and disrupt proceedings, so that the M&Ms are perfect, but the wiring electrocutes the guitarist and wreaks the concert.)

So if you are going to use these kinds of trick as a shortcut to detect what's going on, you need four things.
  1. to design a test that is a good indicator of incompetence, laziness or inattention
  2. to behave congruently as if the test really mattered
  3. to act appropriately when the test fails (e.g. test the wiring, look for an alternative venue)
  4. to watch out for signs that the test has been rumbled
And if you suspect that these kinds of tricks are being used against you, to test your competence and attention to detail, then you are probably already paying enough attention to detail to be able to do an all-round competent job. Maybe next time they'll trust you a bit more, okay?

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