Lately, I’ve been enjoying jigsaw puzzles. Working on puzzles has been a relaxing activity for my wife and I to do together with The Office running in the background on near-silent since we’ve already memorized the episodes. Solving puzzles is the perfect activity to create enough of a challenge for us to solve together while keeping enough space for us to chat, discuss, and relax from a full day.

Puzzles are fun, and for us even addictive, because they give us enough uncertainty to challenge us with enough knowledge to make it actually possible to solve a puzzle.

For many, however, puzzles are like any other project with a level of uncertainty, they’re daunting. It’s too much to take all at once.

Think of the last project you’ve started that pretty much looked like this:

Puzzle pieces on a table

Starting a puzzle is daunting

Pieces everywhere with no idea how they fit together. Lots of uncertainty. This gets even worse if you’ve lost or misplaced the box with the puzzle image on it.

The uncertainty is daunting even for experts. The uncertainty continues to daunt me today. When we started Clarity, which started the transformation of design at VMware, and now as we start the transformation of developer experience at VMware, the uncertainty is still daunting. Just like a puzzle, you’re starting from scratch with a ton of pieces on the table. Sometimes, some of those pieces don’t even belong to this puzzle you’re solving.

With Clarity and developer experience, for example, there are and were so many different problems to solve, so many different customers to work with, and requirements to respond to. There is also a limited amount of time and an urgency to get something out there for us to get a foothold as we solve the issue. Although the urgency is there, it’s also important for us to build a strategy that enables us to solve these issues with the big picture in mind.

Over the past few years, I’ve figured out a small framework that has allowed me to embrace the uncertainty as a set of opportunities that can be leveraged vs. failures that might happen.

Start at the edges

When solving a jigsaw puzzle, we start by collecting the edge pieces. These are the pieces with obvious edges on them that will guide the frame of the puzzle. In other words, we’re framing the problem.

In my experience, many people tackle uncertainty by trying to figure out what’s familiar to them and start solving from there. This is like picking up the piece with your favorite color, putting it in the middle of the table, and trying to build a whole puzzle around it.

The piece with your favorite color could be the product you’re working on, the customer base you’re familiar with, or the tool you like using. Whatever it is, you’re starting with what’s familiar to you instead of framing the problem itself.

Start at the edges – frame the problem you’re trying to solve by understanding the larger world around it. Although it’s unfamiliar at the beginning, framing the problem offers you the best chance of actually understanding how to orient the pieces you’ll eventually put together. It’ll help you understand patterns and trends that you might not get otherwise.

The puzzle frame is setup

See patterns emerge

As you put the frame together, you’ll start seeing patterns emerge. These patterns will guide you to fill up corners and areas with the most obvious solutions. Start solving the obvious.

With uncertain projects, starting to see the patterns is the first step in easing the uncertainty. With Clarity, putting the frame out there helped us work with customers to start seeing the patterns. You don’t have to do this alone. Think of it like inviting friends over to work on the puzzle with you now that you’ve setup the framework within which they can help, share their thoughts, and even plug in pieces on their own.

Patterns in a puzzle form in many different ways. Sometimes, they even form in ways you don’t anticipate. As we started transforming design at VMware a couple of years ago, for example, the more we put the frame together on what our expectations are of the future of user experience at VMware, the more gaps emerged. We kept the frame intact but we were able distill these emerging patterns into clear problem statements and started building solutions around them. You don’t need to start looking for the patterns, sometimes they emerge the clearer the frame is.

The puzzle is almost complete

Don’t forget to glue it together

Seeing the puzzle complete is your end goal. You’ve figured out how to frame the problem, put the pieces together based on the patterns you’ve been able to decipher, and now it’s time to actually make it happen.

If you care about a puzzle, you would glue it together in order to move it and display it for others to see.

For projects, the glue is the set of processes and logistics you put together in order to ensure the strategy comes to life.

In my experience, many teams figure out the puzzle, see the patterns, and then move on. The fun is over. The thing is, unless you’re able to move this puzzle elsewhere and ensure it won’t break, there isn’t space to do more puzzles.

A completed puzzle