What long-term care can learn from Van Halen

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

David Lee Roth, best known for being the theatrical frontman of the rock band Van Halen, is a decision-making genius whom long-term care providers can learn a lot from. That's because Roth and Van Halen created an excellent example of what Dan Heath, author of the book “Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions in Life and Work”, called a “decision tripwire.”

Let's travel back to the 1980s, an era when Van Halen was performing expensive, complicated shows in venues that could be unprepared. As Heath explained, it wasn't just that they would bring their show to major metro areas such as Chicago but would also travel to smaller venues in places such as Chapel Hill, NC.

This was also a time where concert venues weren't always safe, where fires could break out, equipment might fly, or stages sink. Performers could get hurt.

That's where brown M&Ms come into play. Van Halen's lengthy contract had what is now an infamous clause saying that there could not be any brown M&Ms backstage or the concert promoter would forfeit the costs. You can see the clause here, and see Roth explain the story in this video.

The upshot is this: If Roth saw the brown M&Ms, he would know the concert promoter hadn't read the contract, and a large technical check would ensue. Roth destroyed a dressing room or two to make his point and eventually, “word got around,” he says.

What Heath explained to attendees at the general opening session of LeadingAge's PEAK conference on Monday was that the M&M rider was a decision tripwire. It's a “if this, then that” clause.

An example in long-term care could be something like, “We are going to start offering a $200 employee referral bonus for each successful hire. If we do not receive six referrals in six months, we will re-evaluate whether we need to raise the amount to $500.”

“We need trip-wires when we consider our decisions,” Heath explained. Another example can be along the lines of, “If two people at the vice president level or above leave in the next year, we will reconsider our succession planning.”

Another idea that can help with decision-making includes widening options, he said. Often executives fall into a trap of believing in a “whether or not” decision, such as, “Should I close a poor performing site?”

“Let's loop back and see if there's anything else we can do,” he encouraged. Indeed, for any of the smaller chains that are now struggling, it might be worthwhile to investigate whether adding a rehabilitation unit, closing a service area, integrating or partnering with a hospital system, or even cutting to a massive sweep of the site's management might be able to save the facility. The place still might need to be closed, but at least the decision wouldn't have been made in a vacuum.

Heath also noted the difference between asking someone for advice versus asking what their experience has been. It's the difference between asking David Lee Roth for life advice compared to asking what his experiences have been. Both may be valuable, but one arguably gives you more objective information.

Making decisions — especially ones with emotional weight — is tough on anyone. But Heath supplies solid tools on how to choose. And if his guidance doesn't work, you can always re-energize the way I did while writing this column, which is to listen to a lot of Van Halen.

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's. She plans to read Heath's book, and also this book. Follow her @TigerELN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.