Published on: March 30, 2010by Michael Sansolo
I’m not sure we Americans ever produced a better bit of advice than Mark Twain’s famous line: “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
The problem is that most of us simply won’t question what we know to be true, even if it isn’t anymore (or possibly never was.)
There are things I know for sure and occasionally they turn out to be all wrong. Years ago I had heard a story about the how the rock group Van Halen always requested bowls of M&Ms in their dressing room with all the green candies removed. The presence of any green intruders would set off mayhem. (Many people I know have heard the same story involving different colors of candies.)
Turns out, I was completely wrong.
Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of the excellent book “Ideas that Stick,” recently interviewed former Van Halen singer David Lee Roth for Fast Company and fixed the myth for all time. It turns out there was an M&M story and all the details everyone knew were wrong.
As Roth explained, Van Halen’s contracts were incredibly detailed to ensure all the correct technical support for the band’s loud and intricately lit shows. Van Halen needed all those details done correctly to perform, but realistically there was no chance to check on each important specification at every venue. So Roth came up with an idea. In the middle of each contract, he inserted a demand that the band be provided bowls of M&Ms in the dressing room, but that all the brown candies should be removed. If the band members found any brown candies in the bowl, they could walk.
What Roth learned was that if the concert promoter missed that detail, other problems were lurking in the technical details. So the presence of brown candies helped Van Halen know whether lots of checking was needed.
Beyond that being a creative way to find a problem, the M&M story tells us lots more. Sometimes what we think we know can be very, very wrong. It might be how we heard the information, how it was presented and how it evolved through the journey.
Years ago a CEO told me one of the toughest jobs he faced was making sure his messages got through his entire organization without being altered or edited beyond recognition. Messages move through the organization like an adult-version of the old game Telephone. Along the way, the message changes thanks to the whims and needs of the many layers of management involved. And in the process, the hoped for improvements erode away.
In many ways, retail operations are like a rock concert, requiring incredible attention to detail. But unlike Van Halen, there’s no easy way of checking up on those details. I have to believe that’s why one store I visited on March 14th had a beautiful display of corned beef and cabbage without any signage alluding to St. Patrick’s Day, any mention of additional ingredients or even simple cooking instructions. Or why another company sent out a flyer this week promising free salmon for customers switching to prescriptions to its pharmacies - a linkage of products that defies comprehension.
And certainly it speaks to a story in Monday’s MNB on the blind produce taste test between Walmart and Whole Foods that produced a shocking winner. Or the suggestion that Whole Foods is a much tougher customer for suppliers than Walmart falls into the same category separating what we know from what isn’t true.
Details matter, but the truth matters more. We need the right information so - to paraphrase Mark Twain - the things we know are actually so. That means clear communication, a willingness to listen and a recognition that all of us may not know all we think.
Pass the brown M&Ms, please.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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