Categorized | tip sheet

Brown M&M’s

Okay, it’s now official. Smoking Gun proves that Van Halen had a rider in all their contracts stipulating that no brown M&M’s were to be allowed in their dressing room. Here it is from their 1982 Van Halen World Tour rider:

M & M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)

Actually, I’ve been using brown M&M’s in just about all my contracts and documents (things like requirements documents and specifications and information architecture documents) since 1999. That’s what I call them, too. Brown M&M’s.

And I put them in there for the same reason Van Halen does, too. And why I advise all my clients to, as well.

More after the break.

You don’t have to be a tone-deaf stoner to know about the brown M&M’s; it’s been a famous rockers-are-from-Bizarro story for decades. But Van Halen used the rider for one very good reason: to test to see if promoters were reading the contract. The rider was a kind of “specs” document for setting up the stage, the sound, lighting, and so forth to guarantee the best possible experience for ticket-holders.

If brown M&M’s were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance–lighting, staging, security, ticketing–may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.

That’s why I put “brown M&Ms” in some of the more complex documents I expect my clients or outsource partners to read and understand. For instance, when I outsource Web or software work, I send specifications and requirements to both the client and the vendor. Both are expected to sign. In fact, in the preamble to all my requirements or specifications, I spell out that these specifications or requirements constitute a contract binding on the client or vendor and that they have read and understood the contents. I treat production schedules, creative briefs, and the myriad of other “understandings” documents that pass between clients and vendors the same way. They’re contracts.

I’ve learned this through the bitterest of experiences. How many times have clients signed off on an information architecture only, after a site has been built, to say that it’s missing pages that should have been included in the original site map? How many requirements have been signed off by vendors only to deliver a program that’s missing a third of the requirements? “Well,” they say, “we’re going to have to charge you more. If we had known about these other requirements, we would have adjusted our estimate.” I once knew a company that would require 60, 70, or 80 preliminary comps of their catalog cover because the only clue the decision-maker would give us was, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

What part of “By signing below, you agree that you have read and understood” didn’t you read or understand?

Once you approach the idea that everything is a potential contract, then critical understandings need to be written out and signed by the parties. Besides a proposal and original work order, documents such as specifications, requirements, production schedules, maintenance agreements, implied warranties, implied rework, implied support, all need to be written out, read, understood, and signed by client, manager, and all vendors. For instance, I learned from my home purchase to put initial lines on every page of a requirements or specifications document. Each initial line specifically states that the individual has read and understands the contents of the page.

Which brings me to the brown M&M’s. I always bury a nonsense statement somewhere in these documents, including contracts. It’s often something like, “When the user clicks “submit,” the computer blows up,” provided the client isn’t Darth Vader or Dick Cheney. Or it could be, “When the user clicks “submit,” the database abnegation forecasting function will first form a cluster based on the neural network specified in 1.3.5 on previous customer submissions provided the t-test on the statistical distribution gives back a value less than 0.8.” Okay, when a vendor signs off on that requirement, I know I need a new vendor (BTW, I have actually dismissed a vendor for signing off on a requirements page that had a sentence just like that in it.) When a client says, “Yep, read the requirements, looks good,” I know we need a sit-down.

Brown M&M’s. Yep. They don’t belong in a Van Halen dressing room, but they’re great in cookies and contracts.

Just don’t forget they’re there or your computer might blow up.

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