Don’t you just hate your job? It’s always changing, you’re constantly being pulled in a thousand different directions, and it feels like you’ll never catch up. No? Well maybe your job is too monotonous. Maybe you feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over; using different pieces but getting the same results. These complaints are all-too-common in the workplace. Ironically, these are the same concepts that fuel a multi-billion dollar gaming industry. That’s right, people pay money to do the very thing that you get paid to do! Solving puzzles is a top priority in any workplace just as it is the top recreational activity in any home. This begs the question: Why do we love doing puzzles for recreation, yet they are the bane of our professional existence?
Many artists lose the passion for their craft once it becomes directly tied to their livelihood and its success is contingent on the approval of others. I submit that the art of puzzle solving is the same. Think back to that time that you were playing Solitaire, Tetris, or Candy Crush, and you had someone looking over your shoulder. I bet you either stopped playing or you asked your kibitzer to leave. Why? Odds are they weren’t saying “Great job” or “Wow, I didn’t see that before you did it!” Instead, they were probably saying “Oh, put that card there!” or “Ah! Why’d you do that? You could have done this instead!” Yes, the things we enjoy are often less enjoyable when they are judged by others.
I studied a case during my Master’s program that really highlighted this principle for me. A new manager was hired to bring profitability to a research and development team. This would be an exciting puzzle for anyone! One of the existing projects for this team was a device for water purification. It was promising, but it was incomplete and could not consistently produce potable water to fulfill the needs of 3rd World environments. She recognized that this product had the potential to change the world, but she also recognized that it would require a lot of resources and it could eventually fail. During her research, she discovered that the current product could be immediately profitable as a lawn filtration device. She chose to scratch the potable water project and proceed with the lawn filtration project. While her results were favorable, they paled in comparison to the results enjoyed by a competitor who perfected the potable water project a short time later.
I’ve often thought of this manager. If she were playing a puzzle game to maximize profits, I am positive that she would have chosen the potable water project instead of the lawn filtration project. So why didn’t she do it in real life? I can immediately think of three reasons. First, the stakes were too high. You can fail on a puzzle game, but you don’t have the same leeway at work. Second, she felt social pressure. She probably felt the whole company peering over her shoulder ready to point out anything she missed. Third, and most important, she didn’t recognize the scope of the puzzle in front of her. Because of this, she could not solve the entirety of the puzzle. Are we like this manager at work? Do we see a puzzle and immediately shrink to the pressure of ‘not failing’ so that we rarely truly succeed? Here are key tips that I would recommend to avoid missing similar opportunities.
1. Recognize when puzzle-solving is needed and when it isn’t— Don’t re-solve the puzzle every single time that a challenge is presented. You can often defer to expectations management and policy enforcement.
2. Identify the pieces of your puzzle— Who are the major stakeholders? What are the movable pieces?
3. Identify the type of puzzle— Are you working on a simple Jigsaw or Sudoku puzzle where there is only one possible solution, or is this a Tetris puzzle where you can solve the puzzle a thousand different ways?
4. Understand the size of the puzzle and your steps to resolution— Is this a 500 piece puzzle that can be solved with little effort? Is this a 10,000 piece puzzle that will take months and years? Is it possible that it looks like a 500 piece puzzle, but there are actually 10,000 pieces? How big could this be? Don’t sell the project short. Recognizing the scope is very important before we embark on resolution. Walt Disney never intended to stop at a cartoon strip and a theme park. How about you?
5. Understand how your puzzle is perceived by others— While solving the puzzle may be your job, it’s important to help others catch the vision of your puzzle. Others want to understand your success and how it impacts them. They also want to help you, but they can’t if they don’t understand what you’re doing!
6. Identify your resources— What is available to you? Are you working on a jigsaw puzzle and are you using the picturesque reference? Is it Sudoku and are you using some scratch paper? Is this Solitaire and are your peers dying to give you advice? This isn’t a test; cheating is permitted. Use your resources!
7. Lastly, emulate my mom from back when she and I jig-sawed together— Once the puzzle is done, slap some puzzle glue on it or else my little sister is going to come over and eat the pieces! Preserving your work is often time consuming and anti-climactic, but it’s necessary for consistency and replication. Few people can argue against the retrospective value of accurate documentation!
Hopefully these tips will help bring the fun of puzzling back to the workplace. If not, most of your computers still have a free version of Solitaire on them— just don’t let the boss catch you! Happy puzzling!!