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The Puzzle Test

How a team reacts to a puzzle can give us insight into the problem-solving process and help us better understand how to help them succeed. In one of our rooms we had a particularly interesting puzzle. We wrote a message on the back of a wooden jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle was simple enough, but it did present some hidden problems.

  • The message was on the bottom of the puzzle, so it couldn’t be seen, once the puzzle was done.

  • The pieces fit loosely together so it couldn’t be flipped over once it was finished without falling apart.

  • There were many other puzzles in the room competing for attention.

When the team entered the room our jigsaw puzzle was one of the first things they noticed. We placed it on a table that was in easy view of the entrance to the room. The table had plenty of room for two to four people to work on the puzzle at the same time.

It was an obvious puzzle with a seemingly obvious solution. Because of this obviousness many teams didn’t start work on it right away. Instead they searched for other puzzles in the room. Most teams, however, had at least one person who would sit down and start putting the puzzle together. Once someone started working on the puzzle the rest of the team ignored the puzzle and went to work somewhere else in the room, assuming the puzzle was handled.

Very few teams recognized the difficulty and challenge this simple puzzle represented. On average, if only one person worked on the puzzle, it would take anywhere between 25 to 40 minutes to complete. Once it was complete the problem then became how to read the message underneath. A few teams tried to put the puzzle together message up, but that took even longer.

Usually the person putting the puzzle together became isolated from the rest of the team and didn’t contribute much to the other puzzles in the room. This led to some disfunction in the group because some of the team members were out of touch with the other accomplishments in the room.

Some teams were smart enough to recognize that they needed to get the message quickly and had several people work on the puzzle at the same time. This significantly improved the puzzle completion time and lessened the isolation of those putting the puzzle together. However, the problem of turning the puzzle over remained.

Less than five feet from the table with the puzzle was a glass top table with a tea service on it. We placed the table in the room, so teams would be able to put the puzzle together on the table and then read the message through the glass. Most teams didn’t make the connection and started the puzzle before they even noticed the other table. They assumed that just putting the puzzle together was the solution and they didn’t think through the problem to the end. Of the hundreds of teams that we watched only about 5% of them took advantage of the glass top table before they got too far putting the puzzle together. The solution was there but they didn’t recognize it.

For those teams that did well in the room the way they approached the jigsaw puzzle was a critical factor in their success. Those that thought through the puzzle together and anticipated the problem of needing to see both sides, were much more successful. These teams were the ones that talked through the problems first before they jumped into solving it.

What we took away from this puzzle experiment was that most teams, for whatever reason, don’t work through problems completely. When they are presented with an appearing obvious solution, they dive in without thinking the problem through to the end. Because they have one of more people working the problem, the rest of the team ignore it and go on to other issues. The top 5%, however, don’t let this happen. They talk through the problem first and anticipate the issues before they happen. The big question is how do we get the other 95% to do the same? I think the answer might lie in practicing and training in escape rooms where teams can learn how to solve problems together and talk about their experiences afterwards in a structured discussion.

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