Summer Jigsaw Puzzles and Project Management

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.020 August 2005

During this summer's family week at the beach, my wife bought a jigsaw puzzle (a thousand-piece-'er) for us to assemble during hot afternoons and periods of rain. I noticed several things about assembling a jigsaw puzzle that may apply to projects and project management.

. Assemble the pieces mechanically.

(1) Take a piece, (2) try to fit it with another piece, (3) if it doesn't fit try another piece. (4) Repeat until finished. This approach is lengthy, but it works and is well suited if I were to program a machine. It is tempting to think that I could instruct people to complete a project using this approach. It is so tempting that I have tried it and failed almost every time.

. Assemble the pieces thoughtfully.

This is the opposite of the mechanical process and is what most people use when assembling jigsaw puzzles. It involves the thoughtful techniques discussed below. In my experience, the thoughtful process can wear on a project manager, but the results are almost always better than a thoughtless process.

. Display the picture of the finished puzzle.

It is much easier to assemble the puzzle if I know its appearance. In a project, I work much better if I know where we are going. Try to keep the goal visible to everyone.

. Find the edges first.

The edges provide a foundation for the puzzle. It is easier to build the puzzle from the edges inward instead of from the center outwards. In project management this is similar to creating a foundation from which a project can grow. Create some basic documentation (note I encourage documentation not necessarily documents) that tells people what they are to do and how to do it; gather a few key people as the foundation of the project team, and allow them to jell before bringing in others.

. Assemble the pieces by color.

I think this is an obvious approach. Place red pieces next to the other red pieces; place the blue pieces next to the other blue pieces. What could be simpler? I tend to think too much while managing projects and I reject the simple and obvious. Sometimes they work best.

. Assemble the pieces by shape.

I think this is the counter-intuitive way to work. Many times I have searched for a puzzle piece that needed to have a little yellow, a little white, and the rest red, but never found that piece. As an alternative, I grabbed a few pieces that had the basic ears or slots that might fit into other pieces. The colors didn't seem to match, but the pieces fit. The obvious can be misleading in projects as well as puzzles. Sometimes do something that doesn't make sense.

. Take breaks.

I can only work so long on the puzzle before my eyes are too tired. I have to quit, rest, and come back later. Motivation, youth, vigor, and love for the work are effective but have limits. People need breaks during the day and between days.

. Only so many people can work on the puzzle at a time.

Most puzzles are two or three feet square. Four and sometimes five people can stand around the puzzle and work on it. Ten more people on the job doesn't help. In projects, every person increases the amount and complexity of communication. More people require more management, which requires more managers, which means more people, and that means ... Limit the number of people trying to work on a project.

. The progress of the work is non-linear.

Early in the puzzle assembling, I spend my time separating the pieces into colors and edges. I go an hour or two without putting two pieces together. At other times, I connect two or three pieces every ten seconds. It seems like I should be able to work at the highest speed all the time, but I have never been able to do that. I wish people on projects could maintain a nice, even, highly productive flow of work. That too never seems to happen, so I stopped planning for it.

We didn't finish our vacation-week jigsaw puzzle this year. We were distracted by other family activities and didn't have the time to work on it. Sometimes in projects regardless of the priorities and intentions we don't finish a project. Something else gets in the way. At work, please choose what gets in the way and what is completed. Your job may depend on it.