Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Gaming the Tripwire

We need to make a decision.

We need to make a decision.

When you make a decision, you create a certain amount of inertia. Let’s say your company decides to pursue Option X. Just by making the decision, you’ve created a vested interest group – people who benefit from continued investment in Option X. They will lobby for Option X even if turns out to be a bad decision. They may also lobby against review processes that could reverse the decision.

To ensure that you review decisions adequately, Chip and Dan Heath recommend the use of tripwires. The tripwire sets conditions that require you to review your decision.

David Lee Roth, lead singer of Van Halen, used a particularly ingenious tripwire to determine if a venue had fulfilled its contractual obligations. As the Heaths point out, Van Halen’s “production design was astonishingly complex.” Lots of things could go wrong and, if they did, band members might be injured. Given the complexity, how could the band quickly tell if all the contractual obligations had been fulfilled?

Roth came up with a simple solution: in the midst of a complicated contract, Roth inserted a demand: a large bowl of M&Ms would be on hand with all the brown M&Ms removed. This was Van Halen’s tripwire. If the bowl of M&Ms was properly prepared, the band knew that the local managers had read the contract closely and had (most likely) done everything right. On the other hand, if a brown M&M appeared … well, it was time to throw a fit and double check everything. A brown M&M indicated that a critical decision needed to be made – should the show go on?

Tripwires are good ideas but they can be gamed. At my college, for instance, all male students had to take two years of military science (ROTC). We marched around in uniforms and learned the proper care and feeding of an M1 rifle.

Every month, officers from the local base inspected us. They paid particular attention to the cleanliness of our rifles. There was one part of the rifle – just below the barrel – that was especially hard to clean. We noticed that the officers always focused on that part of the rifle. If it was clean, they assumed that the rest of the rifle was also clean; there was no need to look further. It was a tripwire.

As soon as we cadets realized this, we cleaned only that part of the rifle. In fact, we had contests to see how dirty we could make the rest of the rifle without being found out. We learned that we could pass inspection with filthy rifles as long as that one small section was clean. We delighted in fooling our officers.

Tripwires are great ideas. They remind you that all decisions are temporary and need to be reviewed from time to time. They set conditions that trigger such reviews. But they’re not foolproof. If the people who support the decision figure out the tripwire, they may well try to game it. It’s up to you to figure out how the game works.

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