Lessons from the Puzzle of Innovation

Lessons from the Puzzle of InnovationIn the last few weeks I was under stress and wanted to relax and do something I have not done for many years. I thought of many things and looked around the home without finding anything interesting that might be relaxing.

While I was looking at my library of books, I noticed on the top shelf an old box that I bought for more than 7 years but never opened. It is a Jigsaw Puzzle, in box, with a picture on the top of a country side view with trees and houses. I opened the box and just started putting the pieces together and piece by piece solving it. It was surprisingly fun and relaxing. Puzzles have grown into a daily activity for me.

So what this has to do with innovation?

Upon reflection, lots of ideas came to my mind about the analogy between solving Jigsaw puzzles and solving the innovation process puzzle, in organizations. So let me start with the Jigsaw puzzle solving process and tips to consider in piecing together your innovation process.

The beginning

As a first step I took the pieces out of the box and as always it was not clear where to start, which side, which color, lot of ideas and lot possibilities. All can be right, or equally wrong.
This is normal and parallels the first step in the innovation process, innovation seems to start in a messy chaotic way, lacking clarity and focus. I would say if every step is clear at the start, then it is unlikely to be innovation; it is more likely marginal improvements or a routine activity. That is why creative people are motivated to break routine processes by innovating, to face the unknown.

This is similar to solving Jigsaw puzzles. If you have solved it many times, then each following time will be well known and the result will be predictable, coupled with less challenge and interest as the process is ‘easier’.

It is important to have the right mindset at the start with the innovation process or when solving puzzles. Start with NO expectation other than it is possible. Avoid traditional habits and approaches by considering something new or ‘innovative’ and see what arises.


To start with the process of solving the puzzle, I usually start with having an overall look at the picture I want to build, try to gather as much information as I can without going into details. The aim of this step is to group pieces of similar color or shape together that might fit in specific areas of the picture. Usually I have maximum 3-4 groups at the beginning. Sure some pieces will be misplaced because I do not go into details in this phase, otherwise I will spend more time in the grouping rather than solving. In my case I started with the following groups (sky and river, houses, grass and trees).

During the innovation process, one has to understand the overall problem and not jump into details of possible solutions in the first step. Consider grouping process issues and possible solutions by theme, without judging the solutions for ‘doability’. After that, you can define sub-problems to solve and do not go into details also in this phase.

Frame and boundaries

I usually start with building up the frame of the picture to know the boundaries and the expected size of picture. Frame and boundaries are important in innovation as well. Boundaries are not meant to limit the thinking nor the solution. Constraints are important to know as they frame the possible solutions. When I am looking for an innovative solution, I focus on questions like, ‘For whom I am innovating?’ ‘Who are my current customers?’ ‘Will novelty lead to success in my innovation or is it just another new technology’?

Entrepreneurs and innovators tend to fly in the sky of ideas and possible solutions but once they want to start they have to face reality and focus on specific ideas and practical solutions. Innovation boundaries are not as fixed and hard edged as Jigsaw puzzle’s boundaries. Innovation boundaries can be flexible, as we tradeoff one constraint (be it time, deliver,…) for another (resources, money,…), and we can redefine the problem accordingly.

The process

After you have an overall view (the whole picture) and defined sub-problems (groups of pieces) you can start looking into details. This is the time to start combining and matching pieces of certain areas of the picture depending on the details of the area and the pieces.

In the innovation world after you divided the holistic problem into smaller elements, you can start solving each element alone while keeping one eye on the overall picture to see how sections fit together.

Trial and error

A bit of trial and error in matching puzzle pieces is part of the puzzling process. There is no penalty for trying to solve the areas by trial and error when you are unclear as to which piece fits next. After I find some pieces (2-3) that fit together by trial and error, I can return to the systematic approach of matching pieces based on their details (color, holes, edges,..).

Sometimes I place a piece that seems fit but after a while I find that it is a misfit. Even if the 2 pieces fit physically, they are not an ideal match and need to be split apart. To some this is an error, to others this is an insight of what does not fit (work). Sometimes I fit group of pieces together but in order to fit them to the whole picture I have to rotate them. Innovation process and puzzles both require perspective which is flexible rather than fixed.

In innovation, it is good to try and experiment with possible solutions, where you cannot predict the reaction and learn from the experiment. This leads to new options to achieve success. This approach is referred in the “lean start up” as the pivot. When the innovator tests and experiment with potential solutions(products) and learns what doesn’t work then they are advised to change or pivot their business model.

All to often innovators ‘PUSH’ a product or solution that the market just isn’t ready for. By experimenting, experienced innovators learn that pivots can include finding what the market ‘needs’ and delivering PULL based solutions, to address market needs. Similarly, with puzzles forcing (or pushing) pieces together seldom is the correct solution to the overall puzzle.

Take a break

Whenever I see that I am too focused but cannot find any solution, I step away from the puzzle, have a break and have another look at the whole picture. When I return, like magic the missing pieces I was looking for appear as if they were just under my finger tips. Sometimes when solving a puzzle and I answer a phone call, I find pieces that I could not find before, because I am not ‘trying’ so hard.

This is exactly what happens in innovation projects. Participants tend to be too focused on the details and forget the whole picture. This is due to the high efficiency of human brain that is determined to find an optimum solution. Is the right part of the brain, working on the right part of the problem? This is why, when we change the context for thinking innovatively, when we have a shower then we find solutions to problems that we never thought of. (Stimulating different areas of our brain is like turning the puzzle to see it from a different perspective).

Anyhow switching the context or the focus too much is not suitable because the brain will not have enough time to focus. There should be a balance between focusing on the problem and switching the context. We have to give the brain it’s time to focus it’s attention on the task at hand before we decide to shift the focus on the context by taking a good look at the whole picture, again.

There are several techniques that help innovation teams and organizations to switch thinking context such as six thinking hats, mind maps, etc. Sometimes hiring external consultants, that are independent provide that objective perspective to help in guiding the team to the areas they have yet to consider.


Solving a Jigsaw puzzle requires commitment, passion, continuous effort and patience. I find that I cannot leave once I start a puzzle. For me “Once I start I can not stop” until I complete the whole puzzle. This too, can parallel what happens with innovation projects. Once you chose to go into this direction you shall not stop till you find the final result (product or market).

Near the end

As completion of the puzzle approaches, the puzzle picture gradually becomes clear. As the innovation process approaches a new solution, clarity of how it will all fit becomes visible.
For some of us, the final assembly of a puzzle can be challenging as the less obvious or tricky pieces remain unattached. Naturally our brain tends to solve the easiest parts/simplest problems first.

This can be seen in the innovation process, where at the beginning it is easy to develop products and sell them to the early adopters of innovations but after that it is a major step to move from pioneering sales to engaging the lagging majority who are waiting to see if it is safe yet.

Finally done

When the whole puzzle is complete it must be maintained glued and put in a frame otherwise the effort will be lost. Besides that I have started looking to buy a new one and start the puzzle process all over. I did say the process was relaxing, didn’t I?
The same can be seen during innovation initiatives where the process must be documented to capture the pivots and decisions. Otherwise all the effort can be lost.

Next time when you think of implementing innovation process in organizations think of the simple and easy concepts derived from the puzzle solving process. It will not cost you much to develop your personal and organizational culture of innovation, Jigsaw Puzzle could be the start.

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Lessons from the Puzzle of InnovationJamil Alkhatib is an Innovation and Technology Management expert with 14+ years of global experience as Innovator, manager, and consultant in the fields of Innovation systems development, Innovation Funding and Technology Commercialization.

Jamil Khatib




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