NOVEMBER 28, 2018

The Puzzle: Starry Nights and Unexpected Insights

This is a puzzle that I worked on for over a year at my office.

Picture of a 200 piece puzzle of the Starry Night painting

There's usually some kind of communal puzzle going on in the kitchen near my desk, and typically each one is completed within a matter of weeks, but this one lasted for a particularly long time. There are a few reasons for this:

Anyway, as the months went on, I found myself drawing interesting parallels between the puzzle and other challenges I was facing at work. Here are 5 anecdotes about my work on the puzzle - which of these problem solving metaphors might also apply to something you're working on right now?

#1. After a setback, sometimes all you need is one small step forwards to re-start momentum.

One day, after we'd been working on the puzzle for many weeks, something happened to it. It was never clear exactly what occurred, but a large proportion of the progress that had been made was wiped out. After this, no one worked on it for a while. I think the general sense was, why bother? It just sat there in its messed up state. Eventually, although I knew I wouldn't be able to quickly put it back how it was, I at least cleaned up the pieces and laid them out in a way that could be more easily picked back up by others. When I came back a few days later, the previously completed sections were mostly restored.

#2. Looking at a problem in a slightly different way can lead to a big leap forwards.

This tweet pretty much sums it up:

Tweet describing how turning a section upside down lead to a big leap in progress

#3. If you are having trouble solving a problem, re-organizing or creating conditions for others to solve it can also be valuable.

Some days, no matter how long I sat there I could not find any new matching pieces in the puzzle. It always felt very frustrating to walk away from the table not having put a single thing together. Eventually, I learned that if I was having one of these days, instead of walking away without any concrete accomplishments I could try to leave behind the conditions for someone else to succeed. In the context of the puzzle, this meant things like re-organizing a group of pieces, or moving some things out of the way in order to provide a clearer view of a particular section, etc. Often, if I left after doing something like this, I'd walk by a while later and notice that someone else had been able to make progress as a result of the conditions I'd created. This sort of reminded me of my role as a manager :)

#4. Re-starting a project from scratch could actually be a fantastic opportunity.

Tweet describing how the puzzle was put away during a cleaning rampage

Although I was super disappointed at first, and never would have chosen to have all my work scrapped, I soon started to feel excited about the prospect of being able to start the puzzle over again. I could learn from the mistakes and difficulties we'd had in the past, and set up us for a much more satisfying and successful experience. There was one big question on my mind, though...

#5. Sometimes, you really are trying to solve an impossible problem.

...exactly how many of the pieces really were missing? Was it just a few really obvious ones, and we were using the "not all the pieces are here" excuse too frequently when searching for something? Or was it really the case that a significant chunk of the puzzle was missing, and it might not feel like a significant accomplishment even if we did somehow finish putting together all the pieces we had? I couldn't think of any way to figure this out other than brute force counting them. So one afternoon, that's what I did. It actually only took less than an hour (as with anything, I started out slowly and then improved my speed significantly after iterating on how I was doing it). There were 1883 pieces in the box. So, > 5% of the puzzle was missing. That's more than 1 in every 20 pieces.

What now?

I decided that 5% was too high of a threshold - finishing the puzzle would be too difficult, and not satisfying enough. I probably would have considered starting again if the missing pieces had been more like 1% of the total. The puzzle, or what we have of it, now sits nicely boxed up on a shelf. But it taunts me every time I walk by. I'm considering finding and purchasing a new copy of it. I'm still very curious about how much the missing pieces had impacted our ability to make faster and better progress...

(Side note: I'm going to be on maternity leave for the next 9 months. My blog posts will probably be less frequent in the near future. But keep an eye out for a photo of a completed Starry Night puzzle in my Twitter feed!)

, TF