Management Lessons from Van Halen

Here’s an excerpt from Van Halen’s tour rider:

Van Halen’s sweet-tooth optics obsession wasn’t for silly reasons. The Smoking Gun reports:

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.

Van Halen was generalizing from a proximate (immediate) failure about far broader issues at stake. Too often, it seems like leaders and managers forget to do this important step when they’re confronted with issues. Let me explain with an example:

Say you’re designing a rocket. After many months of careful design, you’re finally ready to launch. Your team excitedly gathers in the test site to watch. 73 seconds after liftoff, your rocket explodes. It’s now disintegrated into a very expensive fireworks show. Damn.

You immediately begin an analysis of what went wrong. The team reports that a faulty screw came loose and caused the engine to combust. This is an example of a proximate (immediate) cause. As a manager, fixing the specific issue of the faulty screw isn’t what matters. What matters is understanding the root cause. The root cause might be that you used a bad vendor. But what’s the root cause of that? You didn’t assess the vendor quality. Why not? There was nobody assigned to that job. Why not? Your VP wasn’t thinking about potential failure points. Why not? He hasn’t worked at a job where failure could lead to catastrophic consequences. Fixing this problem (re-training or re-hiring your VP) is what matters.

The differentiation between proximate/root isn’t limited to Muskian adventures in space. When you notice an incorrectly reported metric during a review, don’t think about fixing the number. What does the mistake tell you about the team? The process they have in place to collect metrics? Finally, what does that tell you about your culture? Does it not revere metrics enough?

Figuring out the immediate cause of issues on your team is an important responsibility, but solving the root cause is often where you’ll make the biggest impact.