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You Got Game

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

By Mark Henricks

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

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

Businesses smaller than MDSI and even larger than Microsoft arefinding thatpuzzles and brainteasers are not only fun, buteffective tools for evaluatingjob applicants, creating camaraderieand improving problem-solving andcommunication skills.

Mark Chester, owner of Rex Games Inc. in San Francisco, says hiscompany hasfound a growing market for its Tangoes puzzles amongtrainers, in particular.Tangoes, a modern version of the ancientChinese tangram puzzle, can be playedby one or two people, or inteams. Combining artistic and mathematicalelements, the puzzleenhances visual perception and helps developproblem-solving,creative thinking and teamwork skills.

Business interest in puzzles is attributed to the increasingemphasis onteamwork, the switch to an information economy, and theexpanding need to comeup with novel ways to engage employees'attention. Some claim doing puzzlesmakes employees smarter andhappier. "Puzzles help develop visual, logical andstrategicthinking," Chester says, "and they'reentertaining."

Puzzles' Past

The best-known corporate user of puzzles is probably Microsoft.For co-founderand chairman Bill Gates, puzzle-solving has been ahobby since childhood.Today, Microsoft asks many job applicants tosolve puzzles, brainteasers andlogic problems during its screeningprocess.

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 professorandco-author of Microsoft Secrets (Free Press). The basicidea is toexamine how they attempt to solve the puzzle."They're screening for very smartpeople," explainsCusumano. "They want to find people who can think on theirownand think logically."

More widespread business use of puzzles began five years agowhen trainersstarted adapting them for their classes and seminars,says Chester. Rex Games,in fact, now produces a manual specificallyfor Tangoes use in training. "Tsheidea that it's easier toteach problem-solving to managers using manipulative,kinestheticgadgets 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 asksteams of clients to solveTangoes puzzles as part of her evaluationand training process. "Moving piecesaround is similar to whatpeople do in their work," she notes. The puzzles,which useseven angular tiles to create a variety of abstract shapes, alsohelpher appraise communication and problem-solving skills.

One exercise calls for an employee to tell another how to builda shape withthe puzzle tiles. The instructing employee can'ttouch the pieces or show theother employee a drawing to illustratewhat 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 becausethey're differentthan the standard tests many companies use,says Bill Hendricks, president ofDallas human resource consultingfirm The Hendricks Group. "Brainteasers arevaluable forgetting 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 includedhiring a graphic artist to design it anda specialty advertisingagency to produce it. Other puzzles, such as the wordproblems posedto Microsoft applicants, cost next to nothing, whether you useanexisting puzzle or create a new one.

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

"You have to make certain [the puzzle] isjob-related," Whalen says. "If you'rehiring a typist,give a typing test." For top-level executive applicants,Whalenoften administers psychological tests designed to measureverbal,mathematical and reasoning skills. For sales jobs, he testsfor motivation,whether a person is outgoing or introverted, andbasic selling skills. Ingeneral, Whalen says puzzle assessments arebest suited to jobs requiringlogical ability, such as engineers andprogrammers.

Handing a job applicant a puzzle to solve may irritate somepeople, warnsCusumano. "I've run into some very smartpeople who consider it a littledemeaning," he says. "Butif you want to work at Microsoft, you do it."

Other people may simply be confused by the puzzle if itsrelevance isn't clear,says Marks. She stresses the importanceof explaining in advance to thoseinvolved in a puzzle exercise thereason 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 thecandidate down?" asks Hendricks. "Ifnot, then theassessment is worthless."

Solving The Puzzle

Entrepreneurs are finding new ways to use puzzles. CaroleBerger, a managementconsultant with Ayers Group in New York City,has her client teams designprototypes of imaginary products usingTinkertoys. Other teams then attempt toreproduce the design basedon a verbal description.

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

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

Next Step

*Bits & Pieces is a mail order catalog that offers hundredsof puzzles andbrainteasers of all varieties. Contact Bits &Pieces, 1 Puzzle Pl., Ste.B8016, Stevens Point, WI, 54481-7199,(800) 544-7297,

*A catalog for Rex Games may be requested online at thecompany's Web site, , or by calling(800) 542-6375.

Contact Sources

The Hendricks Group, (214) 880-0802,

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

MDSI, (734) 769-9112,

Rex Games Inc., (800)542-6375,

TOP MARKS Consultants, (415) 752-4011,

Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School inColumbus, Ohio,teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer JaneEaster Bahls specializes inbusiness and legal topics.

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