The Brown M&M Clause: Mitigating Risk With A Hidden Checklist Item

The Brown M&M Clause: Mitigating Risk With A Hidden Checklist Item


No Time To Mess Around

Eight seconds. That’s about how long you’re here before your attention is drawn to something else. That 2015 study that revealed that adults’ attention spans are shorter than ever didn’t take into account the multiple distractions that come from working in K-12 education. The work that you do, where the needs of students, community, staff, and others come from all sides, can often unintentionally derail the opportunity to meaningfully create the systems of support that you’re creating to meet students where they need. 

In dealing with those distractions, it’s easy to presume that what’s been created is working well, when oftentimes it’s not working at all - or hasn’t even been implemented. Atul Gawande, in his work The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, notes that “[o]ne essential characteristic of modern life is that we all depend on systems - on assemblages of people or technologies or both - and among our most profound difficulties is making them work.”

We mean well, but perhaps we don’t have the same lexicon of what success means in an intervention, or we don’t completely know who is responsible for identifying students, notifying them, carrying out the intervention, or even where to start. Our best intentions sit idle, and student success slips further out of reach one missed opportunity at a time. When you’re considering starting or refining any approach to student success with your staff and community, be certain that you can fulfill each other’s needs by clearly communicating in advance. However, what do you do when your attempts at clear communication are met with assurances that they can be done without any proof, or worse still, met with silence?

Human(s) Being

Trust is a hard thing to earn, but an easy thing to break. When you’re working with multiple staff on implementing academic changes or intervention protocols on tight timelines, you’ve got to rely on the trust that they’ve earned, or else risk taking an inordinate amount of your time to review every detail of what should be happening. 

That works great when you’ve got the time to do it, but what about when you don’t? 

The Power Of The Hidden Checklist

If you’re feeling that way, you either need to redefine relationships and expectations on your team, or find a way to provide yourself with quick verification that your vision is being met. Hidden checklists are a powerful ally that provide the ability to inspect your interventions for a critical detail that, if found in need, would alert you to inspect the remainder of the system for flaws.

Possibly the most notorious example of a hidden checklist is the Brown M&M clause in the concert riders for Van Halen, which forbade the presence of even a single brown M&M backstage.

What may have seemed like boorish rockstar behavior was actually a deeper dive into ensuring that both parties - the Van Halen brand, composed of band and crew, and the local promoters - knew what they were getting into before the show went on.

Brown M&M Clause

“Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets,” writes lead singer David Lee Roth, in his autobiography Crazy From the Heat. “[T]here were many, many technical errors, whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.” 

He explains the band had a particular tactic for ensuring their safety. As “a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say ‘Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces...and article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: ‘There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.’”

There it is: the hidden checklist item that you’re looking for. While it may seem inconsequential, it’s the critical detail that you’re looking to see satisfied, the clue to see if the rest have been read, much less addressed.

“I would walk backstage, if I saw brown M&M’s in that bowl…..well, line-check the entire production,” said Roth. “Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

Everybody Wants Some (Trust)

In creating a checklist for implementing a successful intervention strategy with an outside vendor, think about the overall vision for your students and what their success looks like for you first. 

Until you’ve internally decided those two elements, any vendor can make promises that lead you in the direction of success - but never quite there - or, much worse still, in a direction that’s not beneficial to your students’ academic recovery or your budget. 

After you know (with certainty) which students need support, the targeted academic or social areas they need support in, and how you can best hope to provide that for them, take yet another moment to identify obstacles that are in your path. Knowing these - as well as strategizing for what you don’t yet know, but may encounter - gives you another element to add to your conversation with a proposed vendor.

Once you’re ready to evaluate platforms, asking additional questions, such as the samples below, to help identify partners who believe what you believe and can execute what you need them to do is key:

  • How is intervention related to the student’s current classroom experience?
  • How do formative assessments along the way change the depth and breadth for students in tutoring?
  • What tools do you have in place for tutoring that students are already familiar with and how will you acclimate students to new interventional approaches?
  • How will you help students acclimate to academic platforms that are different from what they currently use?
  • How do you inform teachers of student success?
  • How do you include parents and community stakeholders in the journey of students?

Having these questions in a checklist format at the beginning of your conversation, as well as asking the proposed vendor to thought partner with you about how they can navigate the obstacles that you expect to encounter, ensures that success for all may be attainable.

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