The Puzzling Thing About Teamwork

The Puzzling Thing About Teamwork

Years ago I was the Director of a team that was not working together cohesively. Deadlines were being missed and the projects, although being accomplished correctly, just didn’t go above and beyond like I knew was possible from them. They never seemed to gel as a group and tended to work independently with little input from others. I saw that if I could demonstrate the power of teamwork, it would not only make our focus stronger but would result in better workflow and communication – and ultimately a better end product.

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One day shortly before noon, I called a mandatory “Lunch” meeting. I ordered pizza and reserved the most visible conference room – the one typically reserved for high-level strategy type meetings of importance and with glass all around so outsiders could see us working inside.

After the six team members came in and got settled with a slice, I produced a stack of seven crisp $20 bills. I explained that I had a task for them and that if completed, each would receive twenty dollars for their effort. Now $20 wasn’t a huge amount of cash for any of them, but with a free lunch and the possibility of making a little cash on the side, it got their attention.

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I then produced a box. The cover adorned with a picture with the cartoon characters from “A Toy Story”. It was a puzzle. A 1000 piece “level-difficult” puzzle. I proceeded to open the sealed box and pour the pieces on the table. I then instructed the team that they had 50 minute – the remainder of their lunch hour to complete the puzzle to win their cash prize.

The team looked at me a little puzzled (sorry, pun intended). They were expecting a strategy brainstorming session or the such and didn’t understand my intentions. But when I produced a timer and said “Begin” they all jumped into the task at hand.

When I sat down and began to help, one team member asked: “Why are you helping?” I replied something to the fact that I wanted in on the cash as well.

The team started with the first things puzzlers do – locate the edge pieces and begin to assemble the frame, all along referring back to the picture on the box cover. Then they started working on recognizable areas, each taking a different quadrant, and sliding pieces that were meant for another members area.

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As the team worked on the puzzle, other employees would walk by and view them feverishly working on a puzzle through the conference room glass. Curiosity on what “project” we were working on that involved a puzzle piqued the interest of them. An office buzz began.

With only minutes to spare, they finished the puzzle but with one piece missing. They frantically looked under the table, in the box that was sealed before they had arrived, even looking among the pile of discarded pizza crust, but couldn’t find the missing piece. The piece had to be here somewhere.

Just before the timer ran out, I reached into my pocket and said “Here it is” pulling out the missing piece and placing it to finish the puzzle just as time ran out.

The team was relieved and excited that they had completed the task. I promptly distributed the twenty dollar bills as one member asked: “What was the point of all that?”

I said, “I wanted to demonstrate a point.”

“The puzzle was a metaphor for our projects. First, it would have been impossible for one of you to complete this task by yourself, but working as a team, you were able to finish it in time.”

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“You may have counted the pieces and calculated that each person needed to assemble roughly 150 pieces each, but did you quit once your quota was fulfilled? No, you continued to work without evaluating whether you had done more or less than your team member. When we all work together with the goal of finishing the project rather just completing our own part, we ALL win.”

“You constantly referred back to the picture on the box for guidance, just as we do when a properly defined strategy is presented. Constantly keeping the main goal in mind makes the project run smoothly.”

“You also helped each other out and alerted them when you came across a puzzle piece that wasn’t in your quadrant but knew your other team member was looking for it – just like when we work as a team it’s necessary to understand and clearly communicate what everyone on the team is doing. It may not have an effect on what you are doing but again impacts the final result if overlooked. Also, even though I am the Director and tasked with leading you all, I am also a member of this team just as you. I am as much responsible for the completion of the project as you all are.”

“Lastly, when you had almost finished only to find that there was one puzzle piece missing, you looked everywhere for it and explored even the most un-obvious of possibilities so as to complete the puzzle. This too can happen with a project, and all it takes is for one missing piece to make the project incomplete.”

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I congratulated them all and asked if they would remember this example on all of our future projects together – the importance of communication, exploring all possibilities and working together as a team with one goal in mind. They all laughed and agreed and generally thought the exercise was a little whimsical.

However, the next day when the word got out to the rest of the staff of our puzzle luncheon and they had to explain it to them, it cemented the value of the exercise with everyone.

I framed the puzzle and hung it in the conference room. It was a constant reminder of the importance of teamwork, and everyone, including potential clients and interviewees, got told the story of how it became.

Our team went on to be the most productive group in the company and many have used the puzzle exercise in their own departments after they’ve moved on. Feel free to use it yourself.

It will be the best $120 you ever spend.

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