4 Lessons from Making Jigsaw Puzzle

I bought a 1000 pieces jigsaw puzzle for my 8 years old. It’s a picture of many dogs. I’m glad that it was a Ravensburger set, where each piece is unique, and the right piece fits into the right place perfectly.

But I underestimated the difficulty. So in the end, after I opened it, the jigsaw was left on the table for weeks. My daughter and I tried to assemble it, but we were very slow. It didn’t help that I am a partial color-blind.

Finally, my wife couldn’t stand the sight anymore. She jumped in and worked on it during her breaks, since she is working from home now due to Covid-19.

So, after weeks of opening the puzzle, it was finally completed. My wife’s attitude towards it changed totally, from seeing it as an eyesore, to taking pride in it. She even went to IKEA to get a frame for it.

A few lessons I learnt from this little episode:

1) A common piece of work unites people.

Almost everything we do in my family are independent projects. We have our own work. We have our own hobbies. We even watch our own YouTube channels when we wind down.

The puzzle gave us something common to work on. We all get to contribute to it, not competing against one another, and not slowing one another down either. We each choose when, and how much time and effort, to put into the puzzle.

Most of all, the completion of it is a common goal. We all enjoy the fruit of our labor, which is a beautiful piece of jigsaw puzzle in the house.

How do we set up a piece of work that
(1) Everyone in your team can contribute to, regardless of individuals’ abilities
(2) Everyone can enjoy the fruit of the labor?
(3) Is inexhaustible. By one person enjoying it, it will not deter another from doing the same?
(4) It is something that everyone wants?

Wikipedia is one such great idea.

What can be your company’s jigsaw?

2) Having a framework is a great way to start.

When I first looked at the 1000 pieces of puzzle pieces, I had no clue where to start. Sure, I could just pick up a piece, and start matching it against 999 other pieces, but that was a very painful and slow way to move forward.

So we started with the edges and the corners. We found all the pieces with straight edges and formed the frame. Compared with working with a sea of pieces, finding edges are relatively easy.

Once we set up the whole frame, we had a good sense of how large the puzzle was going to be. We also could start building from the frames towards the centre.

Taking time to first clarify where our scope and boundaries are, can be a great investment. It gives a handle to start our work, amidst a sea of information and moving pieces.

3) I can find the piece to fit the place, or I can find the place to fit the piece.

These are two very different ways to build the puzzle.

I can stare at a space in the puzzle, and try to comb through all the hundreds of pieces to find one that fits.

Or, I can pick up a piece from the pile of puzzle pieces, match it against the picture on the box, and try to figure out where this piece might belong.

It reminds me of how businesses recruit staff. Most of the time, businesses adopt the first approach: you start with a vacancy, you define some job description of this vacancy, and you throw an ad into the sea of candidates. And then you wait, interview and decide on one that best fits.

Very often, it results in job dissatisfaction and poor job performance. Because we are fitting people into pre-designed jobs. Is it harder to change people, or is it harder to redesign jobs?

What if we start with understanding the person in front of us, and think about where this person can fit into our grand vision?

By the way, each approach worked better at different stages.

When the jigsaw puzzle was in the beginning stage, with lots of missing gaps and lots of pieces to choose from, finding a place to fit each piece worked better.

Towards the end, it was easier to search among a smaller pile of pieces to find one that fits a hole.

4) It is impossible to proceed without the final picture on the box

It guided everything we did. We scrutinized it. We held a piece against it and tried to decide where that piece fitted in the big picture. We put it high up when two of us were working on it together, so that both could see it.

I was so appreciative that the colour of the image was accurate, and the details were all intact. Otherwise it would have been many times more frustrating to build the puzzle.

I found that I had to refer to it so much because I kept forgetting about the details. My wife and my daughter had a much better photographic memory.

My final lesson from building this puzzle, is the paramount importance of a grand vision.

In other words, what are we building?

Without a grand vision, miscommunication arises. We might each be pulling with all our strength, yet end up negating one another’s effort.

As leaders, how often do we communicate the grand vision?

It is not enough to talk about it during our quarterly retreat. All of us are so busy, and overloaded with information, that we become quite forgetful.

We need to remind. We need to be reminded.

That’s it. What a lot of lessons from a 1000 pieces puzzle. I paid $20 for it. We invested many more hours in it. It is worth it.

Consider building yours!

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