Don't call us; we'll call you
Do people still not understand the Brown M&M's Test? Van Halen's concert contract and following the terms faithfully. In fact, it was a pretty elegant test, since a bowl of candy is easy to inspect at no more than a glance and without raising any eyebrows.
■ Given notice that a venue had failed to check everything carefully, the band then knew to raise its own level of pre-show scrutiny. Given the technical sophistication of a big rock concert, those brown candies were like big red warning lights.
■ Carelessness is nothing new, nor is the resulting harm. In his booklet "The Way to Wealth", Benjamin Franklin warned that "Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge."
■ The world looks profoundly different to people who live on opposite sides of the Brown M&M's Test divide. There are those who look at details and see careful scrutiny as the right thing to do. These people have proverbs aplenty on their side -- which isn't itself a guarantee that they're right, though it's a fairly strong indication. On the other side of the divide are the people who either haven't been educated by hard knocks or who refuse to learn the lessons.
■ The extreme on one side is the bureaucrat who won't take any action that isn't strictly authorized by a form somewhere, even when circumstances call for it. The extreme on the other is the daredevil who goes urban free-climbing against the advice of all common sense. Both extremes are to be avoided, but taking care itself is not.
■ In a more modest sense, it can be smart to apply little Brown M&M's Tests where one side of an exchange has a lot to gain and the other side carries the preponderance of the risk. For instance, some cold-callers selling their business-to-business services will churn through as many prospects as possible, seeking to make up for a low rate of success with high volume. (And make no mistake: Anyone in business who answers front-line phone calls hears from cold callers virtually every day.)
■ There are a million "experts" out there training and advising the cold-callers. They offer tips and psychological hacks to increase the caller's control over the conversation. To be on the receiving end of one of those calls is to be on guard from the opening gambit.
■ Since time is precious (and can't be replaced once lost), the simplest and most elegant test for someone on the receiving end of one of those calls is to say, "Send me your information in the mail." Not by email. Via the US Postal Service.
■ What makes this a good test? First, it tells you what the caller's expected value from the conversation really is. A glossy brochure and a stamp might together cost $2.00. The time required to stuff the brochure in an envelope and mark the address might be 2 minutes -- perhaps 4 minutes, if the caller has to look up the recipient's address. In total, the investment might represent $5.00 total in direct and indirect costs.
■ Of course, most callers won't follow through. They'll try to make the sale over the phone or send the information via email (at zero direct cost to them, and perhaps a few seconds' time). Shifting the burden to the caller effectively asks, "Do you think the expected value of your call is greater than $5.00?" If it isn't, then the call itself probably isn't much worth the caller's time -- and it almost certainly isn't worth the receiver's. (Or they can just send you a bag of M&M's with the brown ones removed.)