Puzzles teach lessons in academic leadership (opinion)


I’ve never been a big fan of puzzles. To be honest, even when I was a kid, puzzles frustrated me and I had no interest. I was plugging in because my mom thought it might exercise a part of my brain that I don’t normally use. But to me, the whole puzzle-solving business seemed pretty pointless.

This year, I came across an article on to-do lists that included “Making a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.” I’ve generally thought that bucket lists are a little teary-eyed, but the article captured my interest enough that I downloaded it and deleted all the things from the list that I knew I would never want to do or that might be physically dangerous – skydiving, sailing around the world and so on. I also added some notably missed things (like having a grandchild or retiring), and landed on a list of around 150 items that was a pretty good set of things to aim for.

Completing a 1,000 piece puzzle was on the list. Since it didn’t qualify as life threatening and wasn’t exactly unpleasant, I thought I should probably give it a try. Sure, 1,000 coins seemed overwhelming, but why not? The worst that could happen, I thought, was an abysmal failure – perhaps so much frustration that I would put it aside and regret never having finished it. What I did not expect was that I would learn a set of lessons that would significantly inform my leadership as Dean of Studies. These lessons are as follows.

Make your brain work differently. Yes, moms are always right: doing the puzzle made me see things differently and definitely exercised a part of my brain that hadn’t been used in a while. As I watched the picture take shape, I realized that making my brain work differently, seeing things in different ways, and stretching my brain muscles also had positive effects at work. As I was discussing an issue with my management team, hearing a complaint from a student, or reviewing a request from a supervisor, I began to think differently. I also started to listen and hear differently, and I took a step back and took a different perspective. Like turning a puzzle piece around to see how it might fit, I saw myself looking for new ways to fit solutions to problems.

Sort. While working on this very large puzzle, I discovered that I had to categorize the pieces. There were, after all, 1,000 of them. It would have been impossible, at least for me, to have a stack of all those pieces without any organization.

So I sorted them by image, color and shape, which allowed me to work on sections of the image rather than trying to tackle it all at once. Similarly, leaders are constantly sorting. We compartmentalize our work and ask ourselves questions like “Is this a strategy task or a maintenance task?” Am I working on my writing and scholarship or is it my supervision? Is it management or leadership? Is this problem a question of resources, logistics or vision? »

A good leader is not only constantly sorting, but also connecting: “This new program could be a great published case study.” Sorting is an essential task and, as with puzzles, when combined with connecting the pieces, the whole picture comes into focus.

Create a process that works for you. You can’t just magically put a puzzle together. Rather, you need an approach or process, and different people choose different ones. For me, I wanted to start at the bottom of the puzzle and progress. Other people build from the top down while others think from the outside in. Few would approach it from the inside out – those outer parts are easier to spot – but I guess some might prefer it that way.

In short, there is no one right approach. Just because a certain process seems smarter or more efficient to you doesn’t mean it’s right for others. And while it doesn’t really matter in the world of puzzles, when we start thinking about leadership, it does. Consultants, coaches or book authors can promote only one path to ideal leadership, namely that there is only one right way to lead. But, ultimately, you need to select your own distinct process that is comfortable and works best for you.

Attack the task in waves. I found that I needed to work the pieces of the puzzle in phases. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit down and devote my full attention to it, non-stop for hours and hours. Being able to view the task as something to come back to rather than something to complete in one sitting is helpful when thinking about leadership practice – it too should be something you come back to again and again. Sometimes you will devote a lot of special attention to it, such as when you take professional development training. But you can also set it aside and come back to it at different intervals. You will refine it; you will add a piece here and there.

Change your strategy. Working on a puzzle requires changing strategies throughout the process. Sometimes I was looking for a color match; other times I looked to see if I could find a shape match. Sometimes I had to look at the big picture; sometimes I was looking for a small detail on a part. At times, the only way to progress was to thoroughly try on every possible piece that might fit.

What I realized while working was that taking one approach all the time was a losing strategy. Working on a puzzle, like learning to lead, requires trying different approaches: try, fail, try again, see what works and learn from it. Sometimes it will feel like you are carefully checking each element to see what will suit the context, the people, the time, the resources available. Changing perspective is an absolute necessity for honing leadership abilities.

Take a step back. Sometimes I got stuck doing the puzzle. I was trying all my strategies – color, cut, pattern – but nothing was working. So I would walk away. I wandered around the room, taking a break, having a snack, checking my email…and my gaze was drawn back to the puzzle table. I looked at the picture of what the puzzle would become, I looked at the pieces all spread out on the table where I was working and I realized exactly what a piece I had seen belonged to. And the work would start again.

It was by moving away from the detailed pieces that I was able to reengage myself. Likewise, as leaders, sometimes we need to lay out all the elements of a problem before us and then pause. And when we return, we’ll suddenly see that piece we’ve been missing – the one that obviously was right from the start. Sometimes that means we need to stop obsessing over the problem, to stop it from keeping us up at night. Although we feel like we’re slacking off – “Hey, I’m taking a break” – he is part of seeing the big picture as a leader. Stepping back can be really difficult, but it’s an essential strategy.

Sometimes the parts match, but they are wrong. It was a complete and utter surprise to me. I was at least half way through the puzzle before realizing that sometimes the pieces fit together perfectly, but when I looked at the picture more closely, I realized they weren’t the right pieces at the good places. And trying to fit the next piece was sometimes my only real confirmation that I had misplaced a puzzle piece.

In leadership, we sometimes think we have the right solution: everything looks good, you put a strategy in place, you try it and it seems that everything is going well. But then it suddenly seems to crumble, so it’s necessary to save, undo whatever work you’ve done, and start over.

Close-up of the puzzle with one piece missing.If you are missing a piece, you may need to move on. I have to admit that my 1,000 piece puzzle was officially missing a piece. After completing all 999 pieces, I had a gap, like a missing front tooth. I looked for it under the sofa cushions, in the trash can, in the box, in the instructions, absolutely everywhere. But that piece had simply disappeared.

I searched online what to do when a puzzle piece is missing and found suggestions to write to the source of the puzzle requesting that the specific piece be cut and sent. I tried, but the company said it was not something they were able to do. They were willing to send me a new puzzle of the same type or another if I preferred. But, in the end, I just decided to consider the 999-piece puzzle complete and rolled it up and put it away. I moved on.

Sometimes, as an academic leader, you will also find that something is just not working or working imperfectly. You will definitely work with people who will not like you or your leadership style. You will be struggling with problems that, no matter how hard you try, cannot be solved. Brooding over these issues – focusing on the single missing piece instead of the perfectly fitting 999 pieces – is counterproductive. Sometimes you may need to move on. The key is to feel good about the greatest achievement, not about that missing piece.

In the end, my experience with the puzzles was short-lived, but the leadership lessons I learned will stay with me. With this 999 piece puzzle completed, I feel like I’m done with this item on my to-do list. I learned a lot from this experience and I encourage my colleagues to give it a try. It is by engaging these kinds of mind-blowing experiences that we become our best leaders.


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