Friday, March 20, 2009

Flashlight vs. Laser...

Peter Stevens has been talking about his journey from a PHB to a scrum master (and agile coach). His recent presentation included some interesting lessons, journey notes, and advice.

One of the things I'd like to call out is his metaphor for an agile (scrum) team before and after the transition (slide 17 of his presentation):
What is the difference between ordinary light and a laser?

A bulb produces white light – the light is at multiple frequencies, going in all directions and produces more heat than light.

Laser – the light is all on the same frequency going in the exactly the same direction. A laser pen can illuminate a point across the room by daylight. A laser can read bits on a DVD. A laser can measure the distance to the moon (which is increasing by 38mm / year).

A group is a light bulb – bright individuals, but individuals going in different directions

A team is a laser. Focused, synchronized, with incredible potential.

If you do Scrum, you can turn your groups into genuine teams.
I love this metaphor! It's a good one. Having said that...

We have to be careful about perception. I know managers that prefer the flashlight. Instead of rapidly focusing the laser on one or two things at a time to quickly and efficiently "kill" them, they'd rather shine a bright light on the whole room and see what scatters.

It's a "let's do a little bit of everything and see what sticks" approach. Granted, this probably shows some flaws in strategy and vision, but it is a culture nonetheless... and it works for some people/businesses.

So... how do we tackle this issue? How do we make the argument?

Well... make sure your laser is effective. Make sure it can be redirected quickly. Make sure it can kill flies, not just gnats. Turn it into a Star Wars program. Make it a better approach than the stadium lights one.

(I didn't really say anything but fluff, did I? Fine, I don't have the answer... I'm just making a point an sharing frustration.)

Your ideas?


  1. Hi Kevin,

    You really dug deeply for that gem - I'm impressed.

    Half of the inspiration for this analogy comes from a management text: The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, by by Patrick M. Lencioni. "Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare."

    He explains how teamwork is getting all the players pulling in the same direction working toward the same goal, even putting the goal above their own personal interests.

    Two days after I finished the book, I happened to see a black & white science show, probably from the mid or late 60's. Among other things it explained how a ruby laser works (I was into lasers as a kid, so I remembered the description). The flash tube excites the electrons, photons are emitted in all directions and reflected back and forth by the mirrors and then suddenly - Zap! It all comes together and the ruby emits a flash of laser light.

    Click. A laser, at least a ruby laser, is the self organizing team of physics.

    And then I realized, I had the tools to demonstrate it: a AA pocket flashlight with a red filter (used by pilots at night) and the laser pointer which I use for presentations. I've used the combination in a couple of talks, and people love it (even if they have no idea what laser light is).

    Will management get it? I suppose it depends on the manager. As a manager, you should strive to transform your group into a team. Most of the advice in 5 Dysfunctions dovetails extremely well with Scrum. My experience has been that Scrum encourages teams effectively to eliminate the dysfunctions.

    If you can create a genuine team, you do get your laser, with all the attributes you described in your post.


  2. Thanks for the follow-up and book reference Peter!