Puzzling Lessons

Published May 16th, 2011 in Blog, Career Moves, Motivation, Strategies and Hints

We can learn a lot about each other and ourselves by putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

I can still remember the puzzles of my childhood. It was a tradition around the holidays to set one up and work on it a little at a time. We reveled in finding a really hard puzzle for my father who was very good at putting them together. (Now I see his “puzzle skills” had more to do with process, patience, and focus but when I was small it just looked like a magical ability.)

Our puzzles became a gathering place and a compelling goal. If you even walked by it, the puzzle would practically call your name, draw you in, and consume you! Everyone who stopped by was invited to play. It was very satisfying to find and place one of the pieces. (Especially if that piece had been very elusive!)

More than once I shouted, “I found it! I found it!” Everyone in the house would come running and congratulate me on finding a very tricky piece. (All grown up now, I suspect some of those “finds” were left there for me – strategically placed for my discovery and delight.)

Yes, I think you can tell a lot about a person (or a team) by the way they approach a puzzle.

In my work now, puzzles are fascinating metaphors for experiencing teamwork, process improvement, problem solving and resource management. I use puzzles to create breakthroughs with groups and the puzzles rarely fail me.

One exercise reveals how we build invisible walls between the parts and pieces of the organization. It demonstrates how important the big picture really is, and it “tells on us.” Our approaches really do signal our intentions and assumptions.

The exercise is simple. It is sometimes profound.

Imagine a room arranged with tables set for small groups.  These groups become what I call “table teams” in a workshop. At each place, a single puzzle piece is waiting for attendees to arrive. There are also a few random pieces thrown into the middle of each table. Participants are simply instructed to put the puzzle together and they go right to work.

Clearly, they must collaborate with each other by contributing their personal pieces. The “extra” pieces are quickly used too. We intuitively understand how to use available resources to achieve the goal. We know we have something to offer – our piece is critical to the outcome. We understand the puzzle won’t come together until we share our resources with the team.

Then the unexpected happens. The puzzles don’t work! There are pieces that don’t seem to fit the pattern. There are extra pieces. There are pieces missing and maybe even a duplicate or two. This is not how puzzles are supposed to go!

As awareness reaches people, the reactions are fascinating.

Some people feel immediately betrayed. You’ll hear them muttering, “It’s a trick. It can’t be done. She’s setting us up.” Others wait patiently for further instruction. They are totally content with an incomplete puzzle it seems. A few begin to cautiously look around the room, checking the progress of other teams.

Then there are those who really “get it.” They understand the puzzle cannot be completed without crossing the invisible barriers between the table teams. To achieve the goal they must work across the lines and through the assumed barriers.

This is where it gets really interesting. You can probably relate to some of these reactions and approaches. You might even recognize some of the “players.”

  1. Even with the realization that we must “move” to win, some people just don’t. They passively wait for others to figure it out – for others to go find what is missing. They look a little bored with the exercise, but they are quite willing to wait it out. I call these players, Observers. (Observers can also become Obstructionists by default. Their lack of participation ultimately can impede the progress others are trying to make.)
  2. A few players will ask or wait for permission to move. They are limited by self-imposed rules and unspoken guidelines. (Who said you couldn’t get out of your chair? Where in the world did that assumption come from?) Once these players see others moving about, they jump right in. I think of them as Followers. They don’t initiate a breakthrough, but they will fully participate in one.
  3. Some people go straight into negotiation, clutching personal resources close to the chest. You’ll hear offers like, “I’ll trade you one of my pieces for one of yours.” Negotiators have “crossed the line” between teams, but too often they compete to win. For them, winning means beating other teams to the finish. They instinctively hold some things back in order to win a perceived contest. (Finishing first by the way was never part of the original challenge. Some participants assume, presume, or create the competitive element.)
  4. Others are so concerned with what they need, they forget about what they have to offer! They run around looking for the missing pieces to their own puzzle, without considering how the pieces they hold may help another team. It doesn’t even dawn on these players to invest themselves in the success of others. They are Consumers (and people who play with them may eventually feel like commodities).
  5. Authenticity also shows up in this game. Realizing they must move around to play, there are some who will reluctantly get up…and wander around. They aren’t really interested in collaborating, sharing resources, or solving the problem, but they need to look like they are interested in all of that. They don’t make meaningful contributions, but they appear to try. In this game they are Posers.
  6. Sometimes a brilliant thing happens. People become completely vested in the big picture. Regardless of the team they are on (based entirely on where they were sitting to begin with) they become one team with many puzzles to solve. The grand solutions are found when they finally realize: Each puzzle is really just a piece of the larger picture. The people who create this kind of awareness and momentum are Catalysts and I love to watch them play. They create new energy and momentum. They blow through the barriers easily. They are looking for a bigger win. (Not surprising, their wins automatically create more winners.)

Yes. You can learn so much about a person or an organization by the way they play with a puzzle – how they solve the problem, improve the process, and manage the resources. Ultimately, how we “play the game” really does tell on us.

Here’s to all the Catalysts out there! You play brilliantly and you redefine the win.