Jigsaw Puzzles and System Change

Since mid-March, my husband and I have been trying to “stay safe, stay home”. But it wasn’t until May that I decided to try a jigsaw puzzle.

I’m now on my fourth puzzle and offer some reflections on how jigsaw puzzles can illuminate the challenge of deep system change:

  1. Open mind: To make it harder I put the box away and I don’t look at the photo of the finished puzzle until I’m done. This seems closer to the reality of system change. We try not to have a particular image or solution in mind and to be open to new things.
  2. Patterns: Jigsaw puzzles are all about looking for patterns – colours, shapes, light and dark. In system change we are looking for existing and new patterns of energy, attractors, barriers, impact.
  3. Experimentation: Part of the fun is trying pieces to see if they fit, putting them aside if they don’t and picking up another. What a great way to describe experimentation and a refreshing take on the need to “learn as we go” and to accept the need to fail in order to succeed.
  4. Complexity: For me, the more challenging the puzzle the better. And yet, it is reassuring to know that here IS an answer and with enough time and effort the puzzle will be finished. In system change, however, we are tackling complexity, uncertainty and constant change. We can’t draw a straight line between problem and solution (even though we desperately want to!).
  5. Different approaches: There is no “right” way to tackle a puzzle. Working outside in is no better than inside out or top/bottom or one colour at a time. Multiple approaches are helpful.
  6. Collaboration: It is more fun and much more productive to work on a puzzle with someone else. They have a different perspective and can often see patterns and connections which are invisible to me. Inevitably, joint work leads to conversation and connection.
  7. Boundaries: I usually start by collecting the edge pieces and trying to construct the frame. I find it really helpful to understand the boundaries of what we are trying to accomplish and the scope of our efforts.
  8. Force: You can’t force puzzle pieces to fit together. Well, you could, but the end result would be very poor.
  9. Space: I find I need a big space to spread everything out and begin to sort the small and often similar pieces. System change is huge and can be overwhelming. We are advised to start working on a small but significant section and build from there.
  10. Perspective: after working for a long time on one area I am surprised to find that the biggest breakthroughs come after taking a break and returning to scan the entire table. In system change it is helpful to cycle between the worm view and the bird’s view.
  11. Focus: Sometimes I get so focused on one section (the pink flowers on the white fence) that when looking for pieces I totally miss the critical piece in another section. Remember the Gorilla video about selective attention?
  12. Energy: Jigsaw puzzles can suck a lot of time and energy. I find I need to tackle the puzzle in short spurts to avoid exhaustion (and accomplish other things in life!).
  13. Joy: During this period of uncertainty I have found puzzle-making to be a very soothing, almost therapeutic past-time. And there is the joy that comes from the satisfaction of a completed puzzle. As noted in the point above about complexity, I guess this is where the similarity ends because system change is usually a never-ending process of evolution.

Back to my current 2000-piece monster. Try it you might like it!

Stay safe and healthy.


  1. This is a thoughtful and inspiring piece. It reminded me of the challenges we collaborative family law lawyers face when seeking a path to settlement in a challenging case.

  2. That is so true Tom. Human beings are very complex particularly when under the intense stress of a family transition. Thanks for the work you do!