Puzzles aren’t just for nerds.
According to Paul Hlebowitsh, an MIT grad and nationally ranked puzzle solver and designer, understanding puzzles can help us look at the world from a problem-solving perspective. Hlebowitsh makes and solves puzzles for the 90,000+ subscribers on his YouTube channel. He also creates puzzles for computer game developers, corporations, and personal use through his puzzle creation consultancy – FLEB – all with the goal of making puzzles and puzzle solving accessible to anyone.
But puzzle making (and solving) is more than a hobby – it’s a way of thinking with applications beyond the puzzle itself. In the workplace, various problems and puzzles arise daily. Whether dealing with the day-to-day jigsaw of tasks or juggling a calendar with multiple clients, practical problem solving is inherent. It becomes more focused and complex when working on a specific problem, such as pitching and winning a new client. Crafting a pitch, much like designing a puzzle, largely depends on knowing your audience and how to speak to them. Thanks to insights from Hlebowitsh, pitching a client can be looked at with the same lens as solving a puzzle.
1. Start with the Answer
In his puzzle consulting business, Hlebowitsh most often creates puzzle hunts. Puzzle hunts consist of a series of puzzles connected by a meta-puzzle, and are typically solved in a team. When building these puzzles, Hlebowitsh says it is best to work backwards. “The answer to puzzle hunts are always an English word or phrase. Usually for a puzzle hunt puzzle, you’ll start with the answer.” The rest of the puzzle can then be built in any direction, since the answer is already set.
When pitching to a new client there is one specific constant: knowledge of the end goal. Whether your potential client is looking to increase sales, spread awareness, or otherwise disrupt the status quo, it is imperative that you keep that mission in mind. The ideas you provide all ride on this stated mission – the solution. The hard part is determining how to drive them there. But by keeping the end goal of your client in mind, your team can also derive a path to their solution that is specific and focused.
2. Know the Space
Another type of puzzle, mechanical, is better known among the non-puzzle community. These puzzles are solved by manipulating an object such as Rubik’s cubes, the peg game you might play at a diner, or the interlocking nails puzzle. To solve mechanical puzzles, Hlebowitsh explains that “getting familiar with the different ways that things can interlock” helps to manipulate the object into its solution. Hlebowitsh solves mechanical puzzles such as the 2012 Puzzle of the Year by having a basic understanding of origami folds.
Knowing the space is also imperative when strategizing on behalf of a client. Understanding the industry your client is in, (whether that be technology, pharmaceutical, lifestyle, etc.) its history, and future implications (has anyone created an app for that yet?) are crucial for reaching the right solution. The better you know the space, the more specific you can be.
3. Work Together to Embrace Different Ways of Thinking
“The [puzzle solving] engagement is better than anything else that I know of. It’s one thing to have a skit or an event or a concert, but if a company is looking to do a puzzle event for some sort of corporate team building, there’s nothing better than working on a challenge together, to help build your ability to work on challenges together.” Everyone on your company’s pitch team has different strengths, and the only way to capitalize on all of them is to work together. As a puzzle consultant, Hlebowitsh creates puzzle hunts for corporate team building events – exercises that prove useful when trying to solve a company or client given problem.
Hlebowitsh also notes, “There’s a big effort right now in the puzzle community to get more diverse viewpoints. We want to see a lot more international designers. We want to see minority designers. Those new viewpoints will create very interesting, different puzzles.” No matter the industry, having diverse opinions will stimulate growth and innovation. Bringing in members of the creative team to a dry financial pitch, or setting up a conference call with a satellite office abroad may bring insights you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Following the puzzle community’s example should be imperative for all businesses.
4. Be Creative
Puzzle solvers tend to be fairly logical. (There’s even a branch of puzzles called “logic puzzles,” which consist of Soduku and word puzzles.) But logical isn’t the only attribute you need to be a good puzzle solver. “There’s a certain amount of logic that’s inherent to puzzle solving, but beyond that it’s mostly creative,” says Hlebowitsh. Looking at the problem from every angle, and allowing yourself to solve it in new ways could bring you to an unexpected solution that might work even better than the traditional.
Is your pitch style fairly standard? Standing in front of a Powerpoint, talking at the client? There’s nothing wrong with that – as long as you don’t let it stifle your ideas. Though it’s good to have a base line, don’t be afraid to embrace creativity wherever it arises. Perhaps introducing a new brainstorm style (like warming up with a puzzle) or practicing the pitch in a unique location (there’s nothing like testing your projection abilities outside,) will give you insights into a technique you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
It’s not hard to become distracted after working on one pitch for some time. Losing sight of the end goal or falling into a lull can delay a finished, polished product. But losing focus and distraction is inevitable – it happens to the best of us.
So what’s the answer? Puzzles, of course. Hlebowitsh says: “Puzzles really require focus. In our distraction riddled world, it’s one of the few entertainment options that requires that you sit down and really try, really focus.” Focusing exercises such as puzzles can have practical implications for the work environment. Whether you’re doing a daily crossword or Soduku on your commute, completing puzzles can have positive impacts on your brain and memory, and may help you focus on long-term projects.
Though there is a steep learning curve in becoming a regular puzzle solver, you don’t have to be a master to harness the strategic advantages of puzzle solving in the workplace. Looking at your daily problems as a puzzle waiting to be solved may help you find answers you couldn’t see before.