Do You See the White Light?

This is a citizen contribution from Adam Chapman.

At school you may have experimented with prisms in a science lesson.  If you don’t remember, a prism is typically a triangular shaped piece of well-engineered glass, with polished surfaces that refracts light.  The most fun bit about it is that when you put white light into it one side, it comes out in rainbow colours from the others.  And therefore at school you learn that white light is in fact made up of different colours.

I’m sure that as we grow up we end up forgetting simple1 science lessons like this.  And certainly while we’re at work and being fascinated with the latest business thinking, or the latest tool to do our job with, we forget that sometimes it’s the simple thinking that really helps us along.

The reason the prism came in to my mind was that I’m currently looking at recruiting a team.  It’s not often you get to create a team from zero, or even rarer think about the make-up of the team you already have but the trick, I think, is to get the right mix of component colours into the prism of your team so you end up with a pure white light on the other side.


Meredith Belbin expressed in his 1981 title, Management Teams, various roles that people at work display.  The best teams are finely balanced and work closely together.  So you need a mixture of members who have crazy ideas, those who co-ordinate, some who investigate, shape-up, influence, record and monitor, implement and of course finish off ideas and projects.  These are the rainbow colours of the prism.  If you have a team of people who have great ideas but no-one to shape those ideas up, implement them and finish them off (and all the other tasks) you’ll have wonderful brainstorming sessions but precious little else.

Question:  When was the last time you thought about the roles and personalities you have in your own team, whether you’re a manager or not?  Do you have equal colours making white light or do you have an imbalance that changes the hue of the combined output?

I was surprised when I first conducted an investigation like this.  The team was really imbalanced.  There was2 a plant (myself); a resource investigator (my manager); an implementer and a completer-finisher (my peers).  None of the other roles got a look in and while it isn’t always possible to have one of every role present, this small team would have wild ideas, chase after them with enthusiasm and prematurely put in systems without necessarily having the wider shaping-up and development or follow up that the ideas needed to make them really “wow!”

To further illustrate the point, I once attended a sales presentation where I was in a group of 8 or so people being pitched to.  At the end, my manager asked everyone in the room what they thought of the presentation.  Some people commented about the pitcher’s verbal delivery.  Some about his technical knowledge, others about his slide deck.  I said the pitcher had dirty fingernails, an unkempt shirt and smelt [editor’s note: Our American readers should note that certain words and spelling are different in British English, and smelt means smelled. Germans, you should read this, too.] of alcohol from overindulging the night before3.

At that meeting we really did have white light coming out from the prism and every single person had a unique insight to what was going on in the room and during the pitch.  But if you had asked just one or two of us you would have ended up with a skewed and incorrect view on the events that transpired.

I’m certainly going to buy a prism and put it on my desk at work so that while I build my team from the ground up, I never forget about the different – and all equally valid – elements I need to ensure are present.  My challenge to anyone reading this is to see just how white your own light is and start the (sometimes difficult) journey to changing the shade if it isn’t pure.


1. I say simple but it took Isaac Newton to figure this out and until 1666 humans considered white light to be colourless.
 The roles are described as per Belbin’s descriptions.
 Because none of us have ever done anything like this the night before a big pitch, we’re all far too professional, eh?

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