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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Life lessons from completing a 1000-piece puzzle

We are now trying to together create the matrix of "courses" that would be needed in order to accommodate 100 freshmen students in up to 66 different majors. I think Liz called this a "puzzle" in an earlier post, by which she may have meant a "wicked problem."  :)

I had the occasion to complete a 1000-piece puzzle a couple of weeks ago. I don't do this very often, probably because I don't very often have a major surgery that renders me incapable of doing anything but sitting and staring at little pieces of cardboard. In any case, I learned so much from this activity that applies to the puzzle that we find ourselves trying to complete together:

  • There is nothing like trying to complete a complex puzzle to illustrate the blinding power of expectations. So many times I would look at the partially-constructed frame and anticipate what the adjoining piece would look like.  All this expectation about the "imagined solution" only made me incompetent to actually find the "actual solution." So strong is the filtering power of expectation, that I often could not see the solution when it was right in front of me--when it was rotated so that it required me to change my viewpoint to recognize it, or was a different hue than I anticipated;
  • To "solve" a complex puzzle, a team must ultimately draw on peoples' different gifts. My mom, a tenacious woman and interior designer, at one point announced that she "had it," began collecting to herself every puzzle piece with particular shades of green, and commenced the arduous task of completing the upper regions of the left and right corners by trial and error! Several hours later, she had accomplished her mission. Wow, doing that would have surely been a suicide mission for me. But she systematically tackled it. It was only about 5% of the total area of the puzzle, but it was so necessary to our progress;
  • The rate of progress is not steady or what you might call "linear" (such as 2 pieces placed per minute). It comes in spurts.  You'll unsuccessfully look for a piece for several minutes or maybe even an hour and then suddenly, when one falls into place, a whole host of others rapidly fall into place;
  • It is very important to walk away from the puzzle every once in a while. More time invested often does not mean more progress.  It was remarkable how many times I labored in vain to find a piece (see bullet point one), only to walk away and recognize it instantly upon my return in the sea of the same puzzle pieces that were previously "concealing" it;
  • Sometimes what is called for is to simply stare at the whole thing for a long time. While this seems like doing nothing, I found that when I undertook this strategy, I would oddly be able to locate the "solution" (the fitting piece) in a way that was beneath my level of awareness. This strategy is perhaps akin to "emergent design." It allows us to circumvent the habitual cognitive paths and "find the solution" through another means (or perhaps a less conscious means). 
Well, at least to me, these lessons seem to be important..

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