by Michael Holland    

Rock stars and celebrities often have eccentric requirements for their pre-gig preparation rooms.  The famous band Van Halen had a clause in their contract that specifically said they wanted bowls of M&Ms backstage, but that all the brown ones must be removed.  Seems ridiculous.  But there was a method to lead band member David Lee Roth’s madness.  He was setting up what’s called a tripwire; that is, something that will snap us to attention when a decision needs to be made.

The band had a tremendously difficult and complex stage setup for their performances, and most often the tractor trailers would arrive at the performance venues well ahead of the band.  Local stagehands would have to follow the setup instructions provided in the contract exactly, because an improper setup could cause major problems during the performance, as well as potential injury to band members.

Upon his arrival, Roth would casually walk into the private band area and look for the M&M bowls.  If he saw brown M&Ms, he knew right away that the local stagehands and staff had not read and followed all the instructions in the contract, and would immediately call for a full check of the stage setup.  The brown M&Ms were his tripwire.

Leaders often run on autopilot, repeating behaviors – habits – as they go through meetings day after day, week after week, and month after month. Since they’re on autopilot, they often miss key opportunities for decision making.  Tripwires can be used to set a threshold or deadline that, when hit, requires a decision.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • A probationary period for a new hire sets a tripwire for you to make the “stay or go” decision.
  • A “two-employee-complaint” tripwire signals that it’s time for you to have a conversation with that leadership-challenged supervisor.
  • A goal in your performance review that you’ve copied and pasted from last 3 years acts as a tripwire to see if your boss is really reading your self-review.
  • Giving your administrative assistant the “permission to fire status”. This tripwire means she can give you direct feedback regarding your stupid comments at a staff meeting, etc.
  • Committing to a quarterly lunch with your career mentor that requires you to take inventory of how you’re progressing with your broad leadership development.
  • An auto reminder on the 22nd day of the month to take a 1 hour retreat the next day to plan the next month’s activities to focus on that Quad 2 work.

Use tripwires to startle yourself, force a decision point, and awaken your perspective.  Party like a rock star or lead like a legend: either way, just make sure to have a simple yet eccentric tripwire to keep things honest.

Party like a rock star or lead like a legend: either way, just make sure to have a simple yet eccentric tripwire to keep things honest.

Coaching Thoughts – For You and Your Peers

  • Have you ever felt yourself running on autopilot? What situations do you tend to “zone out” in most?
  • Think of a time that you would have benefitted from having a tripwire set up? What could have acted as a tripwire in that situation?
  • Which of the suggested tripwires did you like the best? Pick at least two and try them out.