Jigsaw puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles were a traditional part of our family’s summer vacations. Spread out on a card table in the living room near a window for easy access and good light, the several thousand tiny pieces would slowly morph into a scene depicting perhaps a huge ornate castle, a formal English garden,or a family of polar bears in the snow.  Everyone worked at their own pace, sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups, and sometimes alongside the entire family - especially when it rained.  We each had our own style and some had a preferred approach:  edges, sky, faces, a color or a pattern. We alerted each other to our needs: the mast of a ship, blue water with sparkles, or a right hand holding a flower. There were few rules, but we observed puzzle etiquette:  don’t obscure pieces,  share credit generously, keep elbows out of faces, don’t block the light, and let the youngest (or guest) put in the last piece. The jigsaw puzzle was a family project, and despite age and experience related differences in skill, everyone contributed and everyone felt good when it was done. What I remember best is that the informal and unstructured approach was both effortless and successful. 

There are other ways to do puzzles, of course. One summer I received a puzzle for my birthday and took it to my room to work on in private. My parents allowed me to ‘own’ this puzzle but quietly continued the tradition of work on a family puzzle. Despite my prideful best efforts, the family completed 4-5 puzzles in the common space during the time it took me to finish ‘my’ puzzle, and I never made that mistake again.

The other day at work, I wondered what our family jigsaw puzzle process might have been like had it been managed by our hospital. A high level committee would have picked the puzzle, determined who would be informed about the puzzle, set a target date for puzzle completion, and selected the individuals or committees who would be allowed to work on the puzzle. In the interests of efficiency, someone would have divided up the puzzle pieces and assigned one group to work on assembling edge pieces, another group to work on the sky, and yet another the feet and hands. Each group would have been expected to have a chair or team leader, an agenda, a timeline for their work, and to communicate their progress to the executive committee with regular reports. The executive committee would have been responsible for managing communication among the groups. Work by each group would have been limited to a monthly sixty or ninety minute session. When it became time to join the sky to the outside edge, the two groups would have to negotiate a common meeting time and place where their separate sub-assemblies could be joined, a process that would likely need repeating several times. When it was finally completed, the puzzle (or, more likely, a report about the puzzle) would have been presented to the entire staff for approval at a quarterly meeting, probably for most their first awareness of the puzzle project.

Sounds crazy, right? No one would approach a jigsaw puzzle this way? Sadly, this is precisely how many organizations solve problems. 

Consider what happens when the typical organization with its hierarchical and committee-oriented approach addresses a problem:


 Top level administration, charged by the governing body to accomplish a task, assigns it to a division which in turn assigns it to a department, which in turn assigns it to a committee which then owns and manages the project - within its boundaries - and may assign a project manager or subcommittee. If the committee or project manager identifies an overlap with a different stakeholder group, it is expected to work up and then down through channels to establish communication with other committees, perhaps in different departments or divisions.  It may not be not clear whether the general population of enterprise workers is expected to know about or participate in the project beyond those individuals specifically contacted by the project manager. A huge amount of human capital within the organization is not tapped. Only a limited (by the membership of the committee) number of perspectives, information and cognitive took kits are used. If this is  a complex issue with multiple potential options involving a wide range of advantages and disadvantages, as opposed to a jigsaw puzzle with only one correct solution, it is probable that the optimum solution will not be considered, let alone selected. (See The Difference  by Scott Page.)

If the project is identified as complex, it may be broken down into sub-projects, each of which is assigned to a separate group. While this allows additional specific expertise and perspective to be applied to the sub-tasks, it also greatly exacerbates the problems of communication and collaboration that are inherent in a compartmentalized organization. 

In short, like a family trying to assemble their jigsaw puzzle in different rooms, a hierarchical and compartmentaly structured system inevitably presents multiple barriers to the knowledge sharing and open communication among diverse perspectives necessary for efficient and high quality problem solving. Both the organization and its membership suffer because of this, despite substantial time and energy expended trying to compensate.

Now consider what happens if that same organization has a public space and a ‘project oriented’ (as opposed to structure-driven) approach.  


As before, top level administration is charged by the governing body to accomplish a task and assigns it to a division which, in turn assigns it to a department, which in turn assigns it to a committee, which then owns and manages the project - but this time the work is done in the public space. Without losing the important benefits of assigned responsibilities within a predictable structure, the ability to tap into the organization’s wider knowledge base, diverse perspectives, and multiple tool kits suddenly expands exponentially. In addition to improved communication and better problem solving, the wider awareness and greater participation predictably increases trust and support for identified solutions. Nothing has been lost, but much has been gained.

The concept of work in a public space is at least as old as ancient Greece and has gone by many names in the sociologic, historic, behavioral economic and management literatures:  ecclesia, citizen politics, communities of practice, agora, the commons, and virtual community to name just a few. The Commons has been usefully defined as  the distributed social and political space where things get done, giving people have a sense of belonging and an element of control over their lives, and providing sustenance, security and both interdependence and independence. It is characterized by being:

  • Integral to the common culture and not subject to private ownership for private gain (commoditization or commodification). Tthe processes of privatization or enclosure are nicely described with illustrative examples by Bollier in Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth.
  • Managed publicly and transparently rather than privately and secretly. (The key is transparency rather than control: management is IN public but not necessarily BY the entire public population.)
  • Consistently available rather than scarce and finite.

There are two important requisites for public space within an organization or society:

  • The physical ability to make information and collaboration possible in a widely accessible way. Historically this has often required public ownership of information and a town meeting type process, but currently is most often accomplished with a technical infrastructure.
  • A supportive culture. For most organizations, this is the hard part. Impediments include grass roots apathy, which often often reflects learned helplessness, and a lack of commitment to a common goal. Impediments at the governance level include dependence on a hierarchical and compartmentalized structure, fear of loss of control by a management team more comfortable with older industrial rather than information age management approaches, a misplaced belief in the value and contribution of key individuals, and a failure to understand that diversity consistently outperforms expertise with high level and complex tasks.  (See The Difference by Scott Page.) 

Objections to working collaboratively in a transparent and easily accessible public space are predictable, contradictory, and short sighted:

  • It’s inefficient. Transparent communication and collaboration are far more efficient than compartmentalized information and encapsulated processes. Inefficiency usually raised by those who equate open processes with an absence of structure and resultant chaos. They should look at the successes of organizations such as IBM (InnovationJam) or BestBuy (BlueShirtNation) or Lilly (Innocentive).  They should also consider the inefficiency of poorly devised solutions that have to be discarded or heavily re-engineered because important information and perspectives were not included in the initial problem solving process, or - worse - the cost of living with a bad solution.
  • No one will participate. To the extent that this is true, it results from a combination of learned helplessness (members of the organization have learned that it is pointless to try to participate) and a failure of the leadership to provide the tools and cultural support for the process.
  • We will be swamped by participants. It is common for people to object in the same discussion that no one will participate and that too many will participate. In fact, it is unusual for more than 20-30% of any organization to be consistent participants, but this often represents a doubling or tripling of the active citizens.
  • It’s too expensive. This claim reflects a lack of experience in collaborative culture by those who have not done their homework or are parroting comments from departments with a vested interest in the status quo. There are many robust, flexible, scalable, free or inexpensive open source tools readily available, and the costs are small when compared to the potential savings in communication and efficiency within the organization.

Want to make a difference? Buy a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle.  Give it to the Chairman of the Board or the CEO where you work. And enclose a copy of this essay.

Some related resources 

Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communications by Paul Argenti (Dean of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business) and Courtney Barnes. 

Cultivating Communities of Practice  by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott and William Snyder.  

The Future of Management  by Gary Hamel 

Benkler's book The Wealth of Networks examines the ways in which information technology permits extensive forms of collaboration that may potentially have transformative consequences for economy and society.

Wikipedia article with general information about the concept of The Commons

The International Journal of the Commons is an interdisciplinary peer-reviewed open-access journal dedicated to furthering the understanding of institutions for use and management of resources that are (or could be) enjoyed collectively.  

Commonwealth, a return to citizen politics  by Henry Boyte

Commons based peer production (CBPP)  whereby the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) into large, meaningful projects mostly without traditional hierarchical organization (and often, but not always, without or with decentralized financial compensation).

Wikinomics –  Both a book and the blog

Coase’s Penguin (available both on line or as a downloadable pdf), a scholarly work about the development of Linux, the open source operating system that runs almost all the world’s servers:   

Open Inovation  site.

Please feel free to suggest additional resources, online or not, in the comments below! 

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