Looking for a new way to get your employees thinking? Puzzles could producethe results you want.

By Mark Henricks

When Jim Fall faced the task of building team spirit, explaining his company'smission statement and helping break the ice before an important trade show, hewent to pieces. To focus on the company's goals for the upcoming show, Fallasked the 50 employees of Manufacturing Data Systems Inc. (MDSI), an Ann Arbor,Michigan, factory automation software and services supplier, to assemble a10-foot jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle's message, "Putting the Pieces ofManufacturing Together," not only unified employees from various parts of thecountry but revealed MDSI's marketing slogan for the trade show.

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

Businesses smaller than MDSI and even larger than Microsoft are finding thatpuzzles and brainteasers are not only fun, but effective tools for evaluatingjob applicants, creating camaraderie and improving problem-solving andcommunication skills.

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

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

Puzzles' Past

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

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

More widespread business use of puzzles began five years ago when trainersstarted adapting them for their classes and seminars, says Chester. Rex Games,in fact, now produces a manual specifically for Tangoes use in training. "Tsheidea 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 andflexible way to get information and impart training. San Franciscocommunications consultant Sharon Marks often asks teams of clients to solveTangoes puzzles as part of her evaluation and training process. "Moving piecesaround 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 helpher appraise communication and problem-solving skills.

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

Puzzles may be useful in pre-employment assessment because they're differentthan the standard tests many companies use, says Bill Hendricks, president ofDallas human resource consulting firm The Hendricks Group. "Brainteasers arevaluable for getting away from the typical testing devices," he says, "Peoplecan figure out how to beat those."

Puzzles are generally inexpensive. The basic Tangoes retails for $12 while thedo-it-yourself training guide to using it costs $129. Custom puzzles, such asthe 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 anda specialty advertising agency to produce it. Other puzzles, such as the wordproblems posed to Microsoft applicants, cost next to nothing, whether you usean existing puzzle or create a new one.

But puzzles do pose special challenges for those who use them in business. Themain risk is that the skills needed to solve the puzzle won't be related to anyskill needed at work, warns J.P. Whalen, president of Human ResourceDevelopment Technologies, a Wilmington, Delaware, performance developmentcompany.

"You have to make certain [the puzzle] is job-related," Whalen says. "If you'rehiring 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. Ingeneral, Whalen says puzzle assessments are best suited to jobs requiringlogical ability, such as engineers and programmers.

Handing a job applicant a puzzle to solve may irritate some people, warnsCusumano. "I've run into some very smart people who consider it a littledemeaning," 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 thoseinvolved in a puzzle exercise the reason the puzzle is being used and how itrelates to the job.

Finally, for puzzles to be effective tools for businesspeople, thoseadministering the puzzles have to believe in their value. "If the assessmentsays `no,' are you willing to turn the candidate down?" asks Hendricks. "Ifnot, then the assessment is worthless."

Solving The Puzzle

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

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

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

Next Step

*Bits & Pieces is a mail order catalog that offers hundreds of puzzles andbrainteasers 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 inbusiness and legal topics.