The Profound Puzzles of Effective Management

Sudoku and the Sunday crossword can teach us a lot about leadership.
by | November 5, 2009

I have never tried Sudoku. I don't even know how to pronounce it. Yet every time I get on a plane, there's someone next to me scribbling away. On one flight I got curious and asked my seatmate, who had a giant book of puzzles, why she was so enthralled with it. "What do you get when you win?" I asked.

She seemed confused. "Nothing. You get a sense of satisfaction and then you get to do another one."

Seems odd, right? Why would we work so hard on something when the only real reward is a sense of satisfaction and more work?

This is the same question I have been asking my Better, Faster, Cheaper workshop participants for more than 10 years. In the workshop, I give them a fictionalized government process, equipped with all the handoffs, CYA, batching, bottlenecks and policy limitations we see in the real world. The participants have 10 minutes to redesign the process.

What they come up with is amazing. While I use the exercise to teach the principles of lean government, my ulterior motive is to teach the secrets of change management. You see, up to that point in the workshop the participants have been peppering me with all the reasons why this stuff won't work in government. And their chief excuse is that "people hate change."

"Really?" I'll respond. "If people hate change so much then why is that you couldn't sit still for five minutes during our exercise without trying to change everything about it?"

Their answers to this led me to two insights:

First, people don't actually hate change. What people object to is how change is done. That is, change is typically done to us, not with us. The typical process of change management looks like this:

1. Someone behind a closed door comes up with the solution.

2. The solution gets a catchy name, logo and mug.

3. Employees are asked for "buy-in."

4. Employees naturally resist.

5. Employees are sent to change management class where they learn to fold their arms one way and then unfold them and fold them the other way so they understand that change is uncomfortable and will "buy in."

6. Repeat steps 3-5 until employees eventually cave

7. Implementation of the solution drags on forever because no one has the passion or energy to see it through.

It essentially looks like my childhood dinner table. "Eat your meatloaf." "I don't want to." Dad pours ketchup on it. "There, eat your meatloaf." "I don't like meatloaf." "Eat it or you will have it for breakfast." Four hours later, the last piece is digested (by the family dog).

Change (or dinner) doesn't have to be this hard. As leaders, we have to understand people support what they help create. We have to appeal to that intrinsic desire to help others.

Few people resist when someone says, "I need your help." On the flip side, any time we try to tell someone what to do -- or even worse, how to do it -- they resist. The resistance occurs because we are bypassing their most valued human faculties: creativity and intellect. When telling someone what to do or how to do it, we are turning them into machines. It's like the famous Henry Ford quote: "Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands they come with a brain attached?" So be clear. Do you want people's hands or brains?

The other insight I've gotten from my seminars? People love puzzles. Whether it's Sudoku, crosswords, murder mysteries or a Rubik's cube, people love to jump in and solve things. "Wheel of Fortune" has been the same cheesy show for 30 years, yet millions still watch. The first three diagnoses on "House" are always red herrings, but we fall for them every time. We fight over the crossword, stack the Legos in the goofy class exercise, and can't bear to walk by a jigsaw puzzle without fitting a few pieces.

Why do we do these things? Again, there's no prize for completing them. We solve puzzles for the exact opposite of the problem stated above. Puzzles appeal directly to our most valued human faculties: creativity and intellect, two things that, unfortunately, don't get used enough during our jobs. For proof, watch how many people in your office use their break time to play Sudoku, solitaire or the crossword. For many, this is the only time their brains are stimulated.

The other thing that makes puzzles such a challenge is the constraints. Sudoku would be easy if you could put the numbers anywhere. The Rubik's cube was a piece of cake when I ripped the stickers off. What makes these things so challenging is the set of constraints -- what is not possible. This is equally true in our organizations. It is precisely the rules, regulations, budget constraints and IT project backlog that makes our puzzles so challenging.

So what are we to make of these two observations? People support what they help create and people love puzzles.

For leaders, this realization may lead to a totally different approach to making change happen. Most people become leaders because they have a penchant for solving problems. In times of crisis or need they rose above the crowd, solved the big problem and were rewarded for their ingenuity. Our culture and organizations value problem-solvers and give them increasing levels of authority.

Unfortunately, the skills required to become a leader may be exactly what is getting in the way of you becoming a great leader. Great leaders don't have all the answers. Rather, they know how to ask the right questions. Leadership isn't about bringing forth the solution. Rather, it's about framing the puzzle -- and framing it in such a way that others can get energized and engaged in solving it. Our organizations don't need big ideas from the top -- they need profound puzzles that can be solved from below.

What changes do you need to make? How can you frame them as puzzles?

Here are some puzzles we are facing today that require our collective creativity and intellect to solve:

What is our purpose?

How can we know we are doing a good job?

What do our customers want from us?

How can we do what we do 80 percent faster?

How can we prevent all of these phone calls?

How can we meet an increased demand for our service while our budgets are shrinking?

Frame the puzzle, lay out the constraints, challenge the players. And the solutions will come.

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