Are you looking for a recipe or a map?


Problems are like Puzzles, both I think are well named, because there’s no implied process.  No approach that everyone instinctively finds or consistently produces a quick result.

Most common approach to problem solving suggests that it gets broken into smaller pieces.  Why? Does a pattern emerge? Or, can you determine a relationship between the different pieces once separated? It sounds like a puzzle, doesn’t it?

A jigsaw puzzle, it turns out defies this process.  At an early stage of our process, after just a few attempts, we recognize that finding the edges first makes assembly of the puzzle easier.

rubrics cubeRubrics cube, or its predecessor the four cubed puzzle–Instant Insanity, and its multi-dimensions add degrees of difficulty. The individual variation in the blocks make the solution difficult. Conceptually the puzzle’s solution includes deciding on the pattern to produce, and then setting the sequence in the cube face to match.

Crossword puzzles, one of those things that people take great pride in their ability to be fast at completing.  This type of puzzle is multi-layered patterns.  One its’ the pattern of answer to match the clue, and there’s an insider advantage from practicing, the other is the words that fit the number of empty boxes, or has a particular letter in a particular place that allows it to leverage words it crosses.

Now look at a map.  It has edges that easily extend, if it’s a mobile dynamically linked map or not, or you know connects to a larger representation that’s known.  In other words, maps help you see a larger reality in a glance. It expands your view of a landscape or a system.  Maps and blueprints both lay out another perspective.  We apply many rules to create and understand the representation. For example, scale, the ratio of an object’s drawn size to the object’s size in reality helps us visualize the inter-relationships of objects from a different perspective. One inch can represent a mile, or a thousand meters.

Creating maps are more of a puzzle than reading them.  The same is true about a recipe. If you know what you want to make, then a recipe provides the list of necessary ingredients and the instructions for assembly.  It too incorporates a scale, so much of each ingredient when combined will create x number of servings.  Most recipes scale easily you can increase the number of servings by apply the same factor to each ingredient.  A recipe that serves 2, doubled now serves 4.  Retaining the proportions of scale allows us to zoom in or zoom out to see more or less mapped details.

Process, the method or approach that literally advances our thinking our understanding or activity turns out to be a bit of a puzzle.  It’s exactly why framing a problem matters.  As I learned last week, when asked to assemble into an 8×8 array 64 small tiles with white and black geometric patterns. There was one rule. Each edge of the tile must match the colors on its adjacent edge face. This was not a solitary task. My team effort comprised people who sat nearby but were strangers. We had 30 minutes. In addition, we were to estimate our progress at 15 minutes, and use the same estimation method at 30 if we were unable to complete the task.

The objective was clear as day. Our team of six suggested that the task sufficiently resourced to tackle 64 pieces. The thirty minute timetable sounded reasonable.

That was until we realized we had no methodology, no way to organize the six people and their skills, perspectives or background. We also lacked the means to identify what this particular challenge needed, and therefore we had no experience to assess the amount of time needed to complete the task.

Brave and trusting souls that we were, we didn’t waste any time before everyone began to move pieces in front of them. Each of us set out to understand the task by doing.  Quickly, suggestions began to spoken aloud. “We could assemble a small section, and then attempt to put the sections together.” Quickly, the group determined that approach too challenging. Instead, we opted to lay out one edge and build out the array.  Well we didn’t finish in the 30 minutes.

Did we fail? Not really, because each of us learned something new about process. More accurately, we paid attention to one aspect of process–one that generally we overlook, but proves essential to the solution. When breaking bigger challenges into smaller pieces, we don’t pay much attention to how those pieces once connected. These interfaces, or places and mechanisms that connect the pieces turn out to be essential to building on ideas, a recipe, a structure, a machine or even a city.

“How” different or even the same things fit together isn’t straightforward. It definitely helps to have an objective. Highly specified objectives make the solution easier to recognize and more difficult to achieve. Loosely specified, sparsely details objectives generate a greater number of solutions and may create a new problem, selection.

There’s an art to balancing the specificity of an objective and the skills and possibilities available. Each of us leans on our past experience and know-how to face new tasks and tackle new problems. For a new or unfamiliar task, we may find comfort in narrow specifications, easily achieved and successful solutions recognizable. Its part of why we often try what we know before trying something new.

Thankfully, we also get bored with too much repetition. We enjoy variety but also willingly engage in many routine tasks to save ourselves time and energy. Accepting the trade-off of early or later specification changes the difficulty of the task and our ability to solve it efficiently and effectively. It’s what differentiates innovation from improvement, learning from reacting and leading from managing.

Try it with different materials with your own team and discover more about your own internal how thinking and motivations. I encourage using play things—spaghetti and marshmallows with the instruction to build a tower, or small groupings of identical pieces like Lego that you invite everyone to build their own tower. Assign the open, but limited time task. Give people an opportunity to share what they did and engage a wider conversation about process dos and don’ts. It’s not just a great team building activity, it’s also great leadership and management development exercise. I’d love to hear back what you did and what happened as a result.

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