Cynefin jigsaws?

March 14, 2010

I grew up with jigsaw puzzles – my mother was disappointed when a birthday or Christmas passed without a new jigsaw puzzle somewhere among the presents. I’ve found nothing as effective to help me wind down while on holiday than unpacking a new jigsaw puzzle, sorting out the edge pieces and settling down to start looking for the patterns. And I still remember one weekend when I was scheduled for a brain scan on the Monday after the weekend, and the only way I could think of to get through the waiting was to focus on a new type of circular puzzle I had never built before.

Jigsaw puzzles are not all born equal, and it’s about much more than size. A large puzzle just requires more patience than a smaller one, but need not be harder to figure out. One of the strangest ones I ever saw, and which I regret not buying to this day, had the same picture printed on both sides, in portrait orientation on one side and in landscape on the other, and you had to figure out which side up the pieces had to go. In the round puzzle I mentioned earlier, it was not even possible to identify all the edge pieces from the word go, as many of them did not have obviously straight edges.

But not even the more common rectangular puzzles all yield to the same strategy to solve them. Some have only a few types of pieces – we call them names like H, I, or “man”; sometimes an I with one set of arms much longer than the other looks like an eagle, and so on. When rows of these simple shapes march on evenly, it is often a matter of matching the colours if you want to make progress. Other puzzles consist of more complicated shapes, but if the sides of adjacent pieces have the same height so that you can use the size of pieces to judge fit, most puzzles can be solved logically – matching shape, size and colour often does the trick. Some puzzle pictures contain a mass of small detail – to build those, you need a good memory for where you have seen a particular feature before.

But then there are the ones no amount of rationality can budge. This summer I came up against one that defied all logic – the woodland picture, with a stone bridge over a rushing brook, was somewhat blurred; elements like branches or stones were interrupted by leaves or foaming water and did not often carry over from one piece to the next, large pieces fitted next to small ones without compassion for the puzzler. Apart from building the frame, my analytical mind was of no use whatsoever. Sometimes, my hand went to a particular piece of its own volition, without me being able to explain why this piece would fit. Other times a piece almost called to me, saying that it fit the pattern of what I was doing then, while I was not even looking for it. The whole time I felt like I was grappling with an invisible foe, as if I needed ninja skills to intuit what my next move should be. Great was my satisfaction when I could finally stand back and admire the finished puzzle, all 500 pieces of it!

So I wondered – has anyone ever developed a taxonomy of jigsaw puzzles? Or constructed a Cynefin framework for jigsaws? That woodland puzzle would surely be a candidate for unordered space!

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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