Collaboration: Key Learnings From a Team Puzzle

What can a puzzle toy teach you about collaboration? More than you might think. 

I recently attended an entrepreneurship conference in Toronto and encountered a startup selling what they called The Empathy Toy. With some time before the next speaker I stood near by watching people sit down to try the toy out. 

It consisted of two sets of identical wooden pieces and a pair of blindfolds. While both people are blindfolded, one must feel some assembly of the pieces and instruct their peer in how to replicate the setup. 

Standing alone near the table, two seats opened up and I found myself seated across from a stranger. He introduced himself but was quiet. Partly to fill the conversation I began discussing the set laid out on the table before us. I took inventory of all of the pieces, verbalizing my findings to my partner, and noted some features such as: the differing textures of the triangular pieces, and the number of identical pieces. My partner noticed the metal dots on the triangles and noted that they would be useful for orienting the pieces. As the organizer of the booth came by to put on our blindfolds, we affirmed that were going to crack the puzzle. My partner asked if I would describe and he build.

We were then in the dark. With our blindfolds on, the organizer assembled one of the two sets and instructed us to begin. We noted the pieces that were not part of the assembly using the same language we had used to describe the pieces before. As we worked from the base up, my partner was quick to ask clarifying questions when my instructions were ambiguous. Before long we had completed the puzzle and took off our blindfolds to inspect our work. Success — they matched. 

After looking around to see others continue to struggle with the puzzle, I wondered what had enabled two strangers to work so well together. Here are my thoughts: 

A Common Language: Our initial chance conversation about the pieces established a common language. Though we had forgotten to discuss language for the orientation of the pieces, we quickly discovered the metal dots and arrows allowed us to orient the pieces. With a common way to describe the situation, communication flowed easily. 

Clarifying Questions: Where our language fell short or my instructions were ambiguous, my partner fired back very quickly with questions. As he asked questions the second there was confusion, we remained at the same stage of the puzzle and avoided confusion. 

A Respect for the Challenge: As two strangers who had watched others struggle with the puzzle before us, we had a healthy respect for the complexity of the game. Without the expectation that we would be able to communicate easily or the misconception that the puzzle was trivial, we committed our full attention to the task at hand.

Enthusiasm: Our determination to crack the puzzle pushed us to focus our full energy on the task and push through the road bumps along the way. 

Lessons for Firms 

Communicate your Motivating Mission: Does everyone in the room know why there are there? Are they excited to work on that challenge? While you may feel like a broken record, take every opportunity to tie the day to day activities of your firm to the broad direction and mission of the firm. The possibility of further motivating your team members is worth the potential risk of sounding repetitive. 

Foster Debate and Collaboration: You’ve hired star players, but no idea is perfect from the get-go. By fostering dialogue and debate, ideas can be iteratively improved without the formal process of submitting written plans. 

Before you Start, Stop, and Plan: Reenforcing the goal for the task and even having a specific goal will help you prioritize the activities that move you towards that goal for a given task and ensure you work smart, not hard. Some statement of a future state can be helpful for setting goals.