Puzzles: how a social experiment built coworking community

Reading Time: 10 minutes

This post is adapted heavily from another post I wrote a while ago on my personal blog

It all started with one innocent puzzle.

I bought it on a whim at Target. It came as part of a  ten-puzzle fantasy set replete with wizards, flying ships, et cetera.

This puzzle had 100 pieces. When finished, it would portray a yellow-eyed tiger relaxing with three blue-eyed cubs. I wanted to see what would happen if I left it on a table at work.

The office contained eight development teams, all working on different projects. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking to people staffed outside our teams. The puzzle, I thought, might change that.

So, when my mother came to visit me, I had her help me assemble the edges of the tiger puzzle. We left it on the table, partway-finished, on top of a cardboard square. On the naked cardboard inside the puzzles edges, I wrote “FINISH ME!” with a black marker.

I did not anticipate what happened next.

A few coworkers finished the puzzle over breakfast on Monday. So I replaced that puzzle with another 100-piecer of pirates. They finished the second puzzle over lunch and over breaks. By the end of the day, the puzzle table needed another puzzle. Out came a 300-piece puzzle of an armed magical mermaid-warrior. We now needed a bigger piece of cardboard. That puzzle got finished the next day. So did another 300-piece puzzle with dolphins on it. So did part of another 300-piece puzzle with unicorns on it. The puzzlers didn’t need me to get them the next puzzle anymore—they found the box and started replacing the puzzles themselves.

Six work days after the introduction of the first puzzle, the puzzlers had completed all ten puzzles—four of which had 500 pieces. My boss, our office director, insisted that the puzzles needed to be harder. He brought in a 500 piece puzzle with fuzzy borders and more muted colors. I worried that this large, less exciting puzzle would kill the puzzling vibe. In fact, that puzzle didn’t even take the puzzlers two days. I never even saw it completed—they disassembled it as soon as it was done and stuck it in a bag with the other puzzles.

The puzzlers asked our happiness director for more puzzles. At first, the happiness director refused: he would not buy more puzzles until we had a plan for what to do with the puzzles that the puzzlers had already finished. The puzzlers began breaking down the puzzles and putting them in plastic bags along with their reference images “to donate.” This met the happiness director’s requirements—and by this time, he was getting so many emails about puzzles that he needed to do something.

Puzzle Community

So, in retaliation, the happiness director purchased a 654 piece puzzle whose pieces were all the same silvery color. He expected the puzzlers to get bored and frustrated and perhaps stop puzzling altogether. The puzzlers finished the entire border of that puzzle after work, the same day it came. They began sorting the puzzle pieces into separate piles according to their shape. They studied the box to figure out exactly which shapes of pieces went where.

Puzzle Strategy

Meanwhile, one prominent puzzler ordered yet another tough puzzle: it portrays a rainbow color gradient when assembled, but each individual piece is only one color. The happiness director locked this puzzle in a cabinet and said he would not release it until the one-color puzzle was finished.

Puzzle Victory

It took a couple of weeks, but before the year had ended the happiness director had to unlock the cabinet and get out the next puzzle.

The puzzlers’ numbers grew. At first, just a few seminal puzzlers—mostly developers—would gravitate toward the puzzles during breakfast and breaks. But after a few days, designers and product managers started sitting down at the puzzles. The happiness director himself got caught puzzling during an afternoon break. It became common to see six or seven people standing around the puzzle table after work, glasses of wine and beer in hand, studying a puzzle.

I never anticipated all of this, but in hindsight I understand. Puzzles make an excellent opt-in social activity for a few reasons:

1.They are self-explanatory: no instructions.

2.They are collaborative: everyone is working toward the same goal, instead of competing against one another.

3.There are no turns: everyone can participate all the time without waiting for other people.

4.Participants can also come and go as they please. without feeling like they’ve missed an important piece of the action.

5.The minimum amount of time that a participant needs to devote at once is very, very small.

500 Piece Puzzle

Watchers would gather around the puzzle table, too. They like to look at the upcoming puzzles and ooh and ahh at their difficulty, or laugh about how quickly they would give up on the puzzles.Two product owners for an airline company—both in their fifties—made a friendly bet on whether or not the puzzlers would finish a particularly tricky puzzle. One client architect asked if he could frame the silver puzzle. A few of the finished puzzles, instead of being broken down, got carried off to decorate various work areas around the office. The little tiger puzzle graced a credenza in the room that we used to scope new client work. It silently watched chaotic, nine-hour, twenty-person brainstorming meetings.

For my job, I wrote software in teams with other people. Writing software in a team is different from writing software as an individual. As an individual, you can do any visionary thing you want. You can experiment and follow ideas, including ill-conceived ones—which is a grand thing for learning and growing in a low-stakes environment. In a team, that same activity is much more costly. If other people don’t understand why you’re making the changes you’re making, they will resist those changes or struggle to implement them later.

For this reason, I sometimes finding myself putting the kibosh on my own or my teammates’ Amazing IdeasTM. See, we developers tend to think we’re geniuses. Sometimes, we come up with brilliant ideas that show off or challenge our genius and skill. The problem with this is that those ideas sometimes don’t make sense to anyone except the person who cooked them up. There’s two schools of thought on this. There’s the school that I came from, which says that if your Amazing Idea makes the code harder to understand, then it’s not an Amazing Idea in the context of a team project. Then there’s the school that says developers should educate themselves on a wide variety of design patterns, and if new patterns don’t make sense to a developer, then it’s because they are not sufficiently familiar with design patterns. I understand that the real answer lies somewhere between these two. In general, though, I’m coming around to the idea that genius, by itself, is not all that important in the context of making an impact.

I’m happy about this because genius, for the most part, is a hereditary characteristic that people don’t do anything to earn. So it’s pretty ridiculous that we praise people on their intelligence like it’s some kind of merit, when they haven’t actually done anything to merit their intelligence at all. So that’s thing one.

Thing two is that intelligence, as we envision it, only encompasses a very small set of skills. For example, if a person is brilliant at connecting with other people but can’t whip out mathematical proofs or argue with their friends in the classical socratic style, we’re less likely to label them a genius than someone who can do those things, but who can’t even manage to carry on a short conversation without saying something ruinously offensive or awkward. Which of those things is more important? It depends on what you’re doing, but the way we praise intelligence, we accidentally place way more value on the logical abilities than we do on the interpersonal ones.

Thing three is that, even if we narrowly define intelligence in the context of logical capabilities, those capabilities don’t seem to mean much after some baseline level is reached. So, for example, if someone has an IQ above 120, IQ no longer seems to be a predictive factor in personal success. I wonder if this is exactly because genius people have trouble working in teams, and most people need to be able to do that to advance to the highest echelons of whatever it is they’re doing. How do you work in a team if your ideas are too hard to grasp and your communicative abilities are too rough to make the ideas easy to grasp? This isn’t always the case—renowned genius Richard Feynman could explain complex ideas in comprehensible ways, and it contributed to his legendary status as a physicist. But plenty of smart people don’t have those communicative skills, and they don’t work to develop them because they believe, and are encouraged to believe, that the genius they already possess is more important than communicative skills anyway.

As much as I hate it, I think that this bias favoring “smart” activities partially explains why I doubted how popular the puzzles would become.

After all, who would want to do a silly puzzle? It doesn’t take any genius to understand how to do a puzzle. And wouldn’t puzzles get boring after, I dunno, the eleventh one? And wouldn’t a puzzle without an image be even more boring? Sure, there’s a little bit of logical ability involved in puzzling, but it certainly isn’t a mental stressor. There must be something else going on here that makes the puzzles so compelling.

Color Puzzle

Maybe it’s the interest in making something. Maybe it’s the friendly, social aspect of puzzling. Maybe it’s the low barrier to entry. Maybe it’s just something to do—a mental break from the rest of the day.

Or maybe it’s a chance for people to connect with each other in some context other than a genius pageant. I’m only mediocre at puzzling, and that’s okay with me because the stakes are low. So once in a while, after work, I’d sit down with my lemonade and fit a piece or two before taking off. In a job where I spent all day building things together with other people, the opportunity to relax and puzzle together felt decidedly refreshing.

For more on building your office culture, see:

Adding Members to your Software Team

The Seeds of a Great Company Culture

Smart is Not a Hiring Criterion


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.