Jigsaw puzzles and business performance: What they have in common

When was the last time you put together a jigsaw puzzle?

My jigsaw puzzle of majestic parks

I like games especially solitaire, crossword, and jigsaw puzzles.  Why?  Because they require complex thinking and problem solving and provide a clear result.  I am a problem solver and a planner.  I really like jigsaw puzzles especially of historical elements, famous scenes or paintings that have 1500 to 2000 pieces.  I was so busy the last couple of years with work that I had two unopened boxes just waiting for me.  So – two weeks ago with the pandemic slow down I took the opportunity to put together a jigsaw puzzle for fun and relaxation.  I worked on it during breaks and in the evenings and completed it in under two weeks.

As I worked through the puzzle, I began thinking about the parallels between business performance and what it takes to complete a jigsaw puzzle.  Whether you run a small business, a nonprofit or a major business organization, it all applies, so here goes…

Before starting the puzzle, preparation is needed.  All the pieces must be taken out of the box and assembled face up.  Upon what surface the puzzle will be built?  Where will the puzzle pieces be organized?  What is the overall picture the puzzle will recreate?  With business organizations, the process is similar.  What is the vision and mission or purpose?  Where are you going and how will you get there?  What do you need to get started?  These questions must be answered and satisfied to move forward.  You must start here to begin.

Build the framework.  For jigsaw puzzles that means finding the corner pieces first, then all the pieces that have a flat edge and put them together to form the outer frame of the puzzle.  A sound business organization must have a good framework to work within.  Getting the framework right is the key to moving forward.  Without a good framework it is hard to work through the various elements.  For the puzzle, the follow-on elements may be the sky or water, buildings, words or even a signature at the bottom.  Organizational business elements could include the supply chain, customers, major offerings, or structure.

Create functional relationships.  As a jigsaw puzzle enthusiast, I have learned to look for certain aspects of what the puzzle will look like when finished.  I begin by grouping like elements, colors and pieces that have common characteristics.  I look for unusual pieces or colors, odd shapes and separate those pieces.  Then I carefully study the color nuances.  Is what looks like black, really dark brown or navy blue?  Is the white that might be part of a cloud really the white of a mountain or part of a word?  Some pieces that look like they belong in one place, masquerade as another piece.  Business organizations require a coherent structure and perform better when functions are aligned.  Dynamic internal and external forces often drive needed reorganizations for better productivity and relationship management.  The structure operates within the larger framework.

Follow a clear process and focus on the vision. I move ahead by putting together pieces that fit tightly together and begin to build sections that look like a recognizable part of the final picture.  I refer often to the final photo of what the finished puzzle is supposed to look like to see where the small section would likely fit.  In business, product or service development often goes slower than planned, but feedback and testing are always important.  Straying too far from the vision wastes valuable resources.

Shift perspective. Sometimes when no progress is being made, it is better to walk away from the puzzle and look at it with fresh eyes the next day.  Patience is necessary and having the discipline to avoid rushing through the process and fit pieces together that do not fit is fundamental.  If you try to force a piece in a jigsaw puzzle that does not belong it will bring with it a host of other pieces that don’t belong and will cause you to lose site of the end goal and certainly delay finishing.  People who do this and get stuck may never finish the puzzle.  Same in organizations of all types, right?  So often we find ourselves going off on tangents that do not relate to desired performance outcomes – we get sidetracked and forget about our customers.  Getting sidetracked can cause frustration, confusion, and a lack of focus, hurt momentum and loss of business.

Challenge thinking. And then there are those pesky smaller puzzle sections that are completed that we think are right but cannot figure out how they fit into the entire puzzle.  I have found that turning the puzzle upside down or the small puzzle section that I’m working on around or even in a different light causes me to discover that what I thought it belonged in one place really belongs somewhere else.  This is no different in business.  Sometimes we need to challenge our thinking and be open to a new idea.  A product or service we developed for one purpose may have a greater benefit used as something else – a different target audience – or a different marketing strategy.

Finish with pizazz. And once the puzzle is about sixty percent completed then the rest of the puzzle seems to move along more quickly.  The puzzle pieces that are unusual at this point really stand out.  The end of the puzzle is easier because the hardest part has been done.  There you have it – having a vision, purpose, laying out a strategy and building a framework from the outside in.

Looking for feedback, being patient, being willing to step back and re-evaluate the strategy or rethink the approach, looking for patterns, outliers and making the most of them and being willing to change perspective – all essential elements for a jigsaw puzzle and a good business.

When you think of business performance remember the jigsaw puzzle metaphor.  Haven’t tried one lately?  I challenge you to complete one.  Write me and let me know if you can find these same parallels.