I hate puzzles.
Maybe it’s because I’ve always been frustrated by them.
I remember once, as a child, trying to finish the puzzle of a hot air balloon. It was beautiful: a brilliant blue sky and the balloon was distinguished with bright colors of the rainbow. But it took forever to complete. The puzzle sat on the dining room table and I heard my mom tell more than one guest that they needed to place a piece before they left.
I might have passed on my dislike of puzzles to my kids. One Christmas, I had a photo of the two of them turned into a puzzle. The pieces sat in a box for nearly two years before I made myself put it together. The puzzle wasn’t complicated; it was 25 pieces. But it wasn’t easy and certainly not fun. I threw it away.
During the pandemic, I watched friends on Facebook safely exchange puzzles as their families used time together to puzzle (is puzzle even a verb?!). Yuck. Not me. Not my family.
And yet, I solve puzzles at work all the time. Every time I piece together details of an event or a project, it’s a puzzle. Only recently did I figure out the difference.
A puzzle solved on the dining room table only has one way it will work. You can’t exchange pieces, and you can’t force a piece to fit no matter how hard you try.
While a project at work can also be a puzzle, there’s usually more than one solution. When an event has a budgeted line item for food, we work with a client to determine a menu that fits that budget. If the client must have candied bacon, we order fewer deviled eggs. If the dessert costs more than initially estimated, we can choose a different dessert or alter the main entrée or negotiate a lower price. We could even choose a different vendor. In our world, there are so many options to solve the puzzle.
Solving these puzzles aren’t easy, but there is a process.
Ask questions until you reach a point of understanding and establish the goal of the project. Then identify possible pieces. Find a piece. Find another piece. Evaluate each additional detail against the project’s purpose and goals.
Recently, I needed to schedule a pre-recorded session for a virtual event. The panel included three members who lived in different time zones. The moderator, client representative, AV company and I also needed to join the session.
Talk about a scheduling puzzle!
I started by establishing the AV company’s availability and then asked the client to identify dates and times that worked for them.
After that, I identified scheduling blocks that fell within the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. range for all of the panelists, regardless of which time zone they lived in. I also took into consideration of whether they were needed for additional pre-recorded sessions.
Finally, I considered my own schedule.
Still, one small piece of the puzzle shifted how everything else fit together. As you can imagine, it took multiple emails, follow-up emails, and phone calls to align calendars. Eventually, we landed on a time and date that everyone could make work and a calendar invite was sent.
The more I think about it, solving problems is a lot like solving a puzzle. I still have more fun solving project management puzzles at work than I do piecing things together on a dining room table.
Your partners in leadership.