From the February 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

When Jim Fall faced the task of building team spirit, explaining his company's mission statement and helping break the ice before an important trade show, he went to pieces. To focus on the company's goals for the upcoming show, Fall asked the 50 employees of Manufacturing Data Systems Inc. (MDSI), an Ann Arbor, Michigan, factory automation software and services supplier, to assemble a 10-foot jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle's message, "Putting the Pieces of Manufacturing Together," not only unified employees from various parts of the country but revealed MDSI's marketing slogan for the trade show.

The 45-minute exercise challenged everyone and encouraged communication, Fall says. "It went very well," he reports. "Everybody got down on the floor and worked together. It really drove home what we were trying to do--plus, we had fun."

Businesses smaller than MDSI and even larger than Microsoft are finding that puzzles and brainteasers are not only fun, but effective tools for evaluating job applicants, creating camaraderie and improving problem-solving and communication skills.

Mark Chester, owner of Rex Games Inc. in San Francisco, says his company has found a growing market for its Tangoes puzzles among trainers, in particular. Tangoes, a modern version of the ancient Chinese tangram puzzle, can be played by one or two people, or in teams. Combining artistic and mathematical elements, the puzzle enhances visual perception and helps develop problem-solving, creative thinking and teamwork skills.

Business interest in puzzles is attributed to the increasing emphasis on teamwork, the switch to an information economy, and the expanding need to come up with novel ways to engage employees' attention. Some claim doing puzzles makes employees smarter and happier. "Puzzles help develop visual, logical and strategic thinking," Chester says, "and they're entertaining."

Puzzles' Past

The best-known corporate user of puzzles is probably Microsoft. For co-founder and chairman Bill Gates, puzzle-solving has been a hobby since childhood. Today, Microsoft asks many job applicants to solve puzzles, brainteasers and logic problems during its screening process.

Microsoft applicants are often asked to answer such questions as "How many gas stations are there in the United States?" or "What is the rate of flow of the Mississippi River?" according to Michael Cusumano, MIT management professor and co-author of Microsoft Secrets (Free Press). The basic idea is to examine how they attempt to solve the puzzle. "They're screening for very smart people," explains Cusumano. "They want to find people who can think on their own and think logically."

More widespread business use of puzzles began five years ago when trainers started adapting them for their classes and seminars, says Chester. Rex Games, in fact, now produces a manual specifically for Tangoes use in training. "Tshe idea that it's easier to teach problem-solving to managers using manipulative, kinesthetic gadgets is coming to the forefront," he adds.

Putting It Together

Businesspeople who use puzzles say they're a quick, easy, inexpensive and flexible way to get information and impart training. San Francisco communications consultant Sharon Marks often asks teams of clients to solve Tangoes puzzles as part of her evaluation and training process. "Moving pieces around is similar to what people do in their work," she notes. The puzzles, which use seven angular tiles to create a variety of abstract shapes, also help her appraise communication and problem-solving skills.

One exercise calls for an employee to tell another how to build a shape with the puzzle tiles. The instructing employee can't touch the pieces or show the other employee a drawing to illustrate what he or she has in mind. All instructions have to be verbal. "Immediately, you get information about questioning styles, acknowledgment of skills and how much they check out fact vs. assumption," Marks says.

Puzzles may be useful in pre-employment assessment because they're different than the standard tests many companies use, says Bill Hendricks, president of Dallas human resource consulting firm The Hendricks Group. "Brainteasers are valuable for getting away from the typical testing devices," he says, "People can figure out how to beat those."

Puzzles are generally inexpensive. The basic Tangoes retails for $12 while the do-it-yourself training guide to using it costs $129. Custom puzzles, such as the giant jigsaw created by MDSI, cost more. Fall says he spent less than $5,000 on that puzzle, which included hiring a graphic artist to design it and a specialty advertising agency to produce it. Other puzzles, such as the word problems posed to Microsoft applicants, cost next to nothing, whether you use an existing puzzle or create a new one.

But puzzles do pose special challenges for those who use them in business. The main risk is that the skills needed to solve the puzzle won't be related to any skill needed at work, warns J.P. Whalen, president of Human Resource Development Technologies, a Wilmington, Delaware, performance development company.

"You have to make certain [the puzzle] is job-related," Whalen says. "If you're hiring a typist, give a typing test." For top-level executive applicants, Whalen often administers psychological tests designed to measure verbal, mathematical and reasoning skills. For sales jobs, he tests for motivation, whether a person is outgoing or introverted, and basic selling skills. In general, Whalen says puzzle assessments are best suited to jobs requiring logical ability, such as engineers and programmers.

Handing a job applicant a puzzle to solve may irritate some people, warns Cusumano. "I've run into some very smart people who consider it a little demeaning," he says. "But if you want to work at Microsoft, you do it."

Other people may simply be confused by the puzzle if its relevance isn't clear, says Marks. She stresses the importance of explaining in advance to those involved in a puzzle exercise the reason the puzzle is being used and how it relates to the job.

Finally, for puzzles to be effective tools for businesspeople, those administering the puzzles have to believe in their value. "If the assessment says `no,' are you willing to turn the candidate down?" asks Hendricks. "If not, then the assessment is worthless."

Solving The Puzzle

Entrepreneurs are finding new ways to use puzzles. Carole Berger, a management consultant with Ayers Group in New York City, has her client teams design prototypes of imaginary products using Tinkertoys. Other teams then attempt to reproduce the design based on a verbal description.

The exercise reinforces the need for simplicity in design, as well as sharp communication skills, Berger says. "It allows people to be creative and competitive with other people and [experience] relatively limited risk," she says. "It provides for complete and total involvement on everybody's part, and it's fun."

MDSI's Fall had so much fun using the giant jigsaw to build teamwork and communicate his marketing message, he plans to make puzzles part of the company's standard management toolkit. "The reaction was so positive," says Fall, "that we're asking how we can use puzzles again."

Next Step

  • Bits & Pieces is a mail order catalog that offers hundreds of puzzles and brainteasers of all varieties. Contact Bits & Pieces, 1 Puzzle Pl., Ste. B8016, Stevens Point, WI, 54481-7199, (800) 544-7297, http://www.bitsandpieces.com
  • A catalog for Rex Games may be requested online at the company's Web site, http://www.rexgames.com , or by calling (800) 542-6375.

Contact Sources

The Hendricks Group, (214) 880-0802, billh@hendricks.com

Human Resources Development Technologies, (302) 656-7024, fax: (302) 656-5887

MDSI, (734) 769-9112, http://www.mdsi2.com

Rex Games Inc., (800)542-6375, http://www.rexgames.com

TOP MARKS Consultants, (415) 752-4011, sharstan@aol.com

Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.