One of my winter memories as a kid was doing jigsaw puzzles – especially at the holidays or on “snow days” those wonderful times in western Michigan when there was more snow than the plows could handle and there was no school because of it.
While I haven’t really worked on a jigsaw puzzle for many years, I received the one shown in the picture from my mother for Christmas. It is a 1000 piece puzzle of the painting “Shelling Days” by noted artist Charles Freitag. (Noted mostly in the world of John Deere enthusiasts, as his work always includes John Deere equipment.)
Mom selected the gift, I’m sure due to my love for the tractors and the nostalgia of the puzzles – as it was her family tradition of wintertime puzzle work that was passed on to me. Little did she, or I, know that I would find more than a pleasant way to pass the time when I opened the box.
What I have noticed in the time spend working on this puzzle is there there are many lessons for us about projects and leading projects that have been illustrated for me by this activity. Let me share them with you now.
Environment matters. If you want to put a puzzle together successfully you better have a big enough table! My card table isn’t big enough to hold all of the pieces easily before the puzzle begins to take shape, so I had to improvise. My lighting wasn’t great so I had to move the table to a less convenient, but more effective spot (and I’m still using a flashlight once in awhile). The message for our work projects is clear. We must find or have the right environment for fastest success. Did I make do with a less than optimal table and lighting situation? Of course. But if I had thought about those things more clearly before I opened the box and poured out the pieces (i.e. started the project), I would likely have been more efficient and enjoyed the process more from the start. Think about and monitor all phases of the environment surrounding your projects and make adjustments as needed.
Clear picture of completion. I would hate to think how often I have looked at the picture on the box as I have worked on this puzzle. It provides comfort, a reminder, and the ability to look carefully to help me complete the puzzle more quickly. I sometimes do exercises in training workshops with puzzles – without giving people the picture of the completed puzzle. One of the first comments is “where’s the picture?” That is my question for you – do you have a clear picture of completion for your projects? If not, how much time is being lost without it? Ask and answer those questions to improve your project success.
The power of an interesting project. There are hundreds of puzzles I could be putting together. Most wouldn’t get my attention. One with pictures of John Deere tractors does – especially when I own real versions of two of the three in the picture! Not every project will be interesting to everyone. But the more often you can connect people’s interests and passions to the projects they are involved in, all the better for the people and the project!
The value of a team. My daughter Kelsey helped me with the puzzle at the very beginning, arranging pieces and working on the border. After that she said, “Dad, this is boring.” My wife Lori sat down for five minutes and put together pieces of yellow to form the bulk of the wheels, and then said “that’s my contribution.” The rest has been all me. There are many reasons they haven’t stayed involved – in part because they don’t care about the picture as much as I do (see the point above) and in part because I haven’t tried to influence them to help (another leadership lesson here). I appreciated both of their help – and both contributions were important for different reasons. If I had more of their help, the puzzle (project) would go faster, and for my personality, be more enjoyable. Both are valuable lessons to remember far beyond the puzzle table. Are you engaging and using the right, and right number of team members on your projects?
Have a plan. Most anyone who has ever done a jigsaw puzzle knows, that starting with the border is a good strategy. It defines the boundaries and size of the puzzle, and is a key milestone of completion that keeps people engaged. After that there are many approaches that could work. I know there are competitive puzzlers who likely could shed light here, and if this puzzle/project were my livelihood, I’d want to know these best strategies. But at some level, we just need to make sure we have a strategy, or have a plan and work that plan. Lori found the yellow pieces and got 85% of the 11 wheels represented in the puzzle completed in about 10 minutes. Have a plan for your projects. Do you have a clear plan?
Work the plan. Showing up and looking at the pieces on the table isn’t enough. If you are going to put together yellow pieces, find them all and get going! If you are going to work on the gray of the Chevy truck in the bottom right corner, get on with it! Just showing up at the table (or in the office) and being busy isn’t enough. Create a plan, yes, but work the plan in a focused way and you will make real progress and keep energy, enthusiasm and engagement higher as a result.
Notice low hanging fruit. Lori approach of “finding the yellow,” was a way of finding something in the project that seemed easy and she could make progress on quickly. Without that insight, she might not have sat down at all! The low hanging fruit might be outside of the project plan timeline, but the resulting energy that comes from partial completion and the sense of accomplishment that comes with it can make it worthwhile. The overall plan is important – the the harder work of the green grass in the bottom corners of the puzzle will still need to be done, but finding and unleashing effort on the low hanging fruit of a project can be a critical success factor as well. Find a balance within your plan, or plan for taking advatage of low hanging fruit.
Take a break. After spending some time at the table, I get tired and begin to lose focus. When I come back later, I invariably find several pieces in rapid succession. Too often on projects, especially big ones, we are under pressure and never give ourselves, or our teams a break. The break could be a celebration of progress, a quick task of something else, or the urging to go home a couple of hours early. Breaks can provide fresh energy and perspective, as well as allowing our subconscious minds to work on a particularly vexing challenge. Of course, there must be a balance here – as focused effort is important as well, but in my experience, reminded by my puzzle, intentional breaks aren’t utilized as often or effectively as they could be to support ultimate project success. Am I creating natural and/or intentional breaks from the focused work of big projects?
Closure. If you have ever put together a jigsaw puzzle you have noticed this. You have all the pieces put in an area together, except one. The pieces around the missing one define the colors and the precise shape of what is missing. It is hard to get this missing piece out of your mind! Have you ever noticed how good it feels to find and place that piece? This is a perfect example of a human need we all have for closure. (In fact, it was this thought that led to the development of this whole post.) Projects need to come to closure. When they are aborted, cut short or the organization decides to move on, without allowing people to feel or find closure in some way, energy and focus is lost. Help people find and/or see closure in their work and projects and you will find them more productive and happier too.
These nine points apply to all projects. More importantly, all are factors that we as leaders can have a positive impact on. We can influence, modify and adjust our project plans and approaches to take advantage of these truths – to create better results and healthier, happier team members.
Your leadership activity for today is to think about these nine project truths and determine which one or two you could influence or strengthen on a project starting today!