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Overcome Any Leadership Challenge (No Matter How Complex) With This Simple Puzzle-Solving Approach How to bring a whole-brain, puzzle-solving approach to clients and the way you lead your team.

By Taja Dockendorf Edited by Chelsea Brown

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


I believe there is a solution to every problem. To find it, we simply need to approach the puzzle in front of us with both sides of our brains.

I was encouraged to do this from an early age with the influence of my mother, a dance teacher, and father, an organizational consultant. Together, they encouraged me to stretch in all directions — to be both creative and analytical, intuitive and strategic. This background has served me well as a founder and creative director of a CPG branding agency because brands can be challenging, multifaceted puzzles. I've learned that whatever the level of complexity, when we put the pieces together with a whole-brain approach, we can find the right path forward.

Each brand challenge usually starts as a mess; at the very least, a mystery. Its puzzle pieces begin in disarray, turned right side up and upside down. They look nothing like the final solution. And in our work, we don't have a fixed image on a box to guide us. It's more demanding (and exciting) than that. So, how do we use our full creative, analytical powers to make sense of what's in front of us? Like with a jigsaw scattered across a kitchen table, we work the puzzle.

Related: Surprising Truths About the Left and Right Halves of Your Brain (Infographic)

The whole-brain puzzle-solving approach

We start by sorting the pieces by color and pattern. This means research, strategy and asking the big questions: What are the unknowns? What are the struggles? What are the opportunities? Then we build out the corners and edges, creating an initial framework and vision for what the brand is going to be. We forecast and plan and structure.

Once we've developed this strategic container, we begin the more intuitive work of shaping what fills it. Here, it's important to really understand who and what we're working with, because —much more than their 2D counterparts — brand puzzles bring incredible texture and depth. And while this can be challenging, it also brings us incredible opportunities to make magic. To turn a stack of distinct elements into gold.

This whole-brain puzzle problem-solving approach originated in my work with brands and continues to be most visible there; after all, it's the alchemy my agency performs every day. Yet, I've also discovered it works valuable magic in my approach as a leader.

Related: 5 Rock-Solid Leadership Strategies That Drive Success

Working the leadership puzzle

At my company, the quality of our team underpins everything we do, making its composition and operation a foundational, critical puzzle to solve. I think most leaders would say the same. But while this is an essential leadership puzzle, it can also be one of the hardest since the major components are some of the most complex — people. Bringing them together in dynamic harmony is an undertaking that requires thoughtful strategy, creativity and intuition. And it circles back to our need, as leaders, to really use our whole brains, and in particular, understand the pieces of every puzzle.

So, where do we start? Like with brand puzzles, we start by sorting our pieces — this time, people, roles and business needs — in a general way. We ask questions and strategize. What are we missing? What isn't working? How should our team operate? Then we set a framework and vision for how we want the team to look and work together. This part of the process is often more straightforward and is what many leaders probably already do.

The second part of this leadership puzzle — bringing the majority of the pieces together to realize our full vision — can be more neglected, or approached half-heartedly, still relying primarily on the more rational part of the brain. But this is where we absolutely need to draw upon our creativity and intuition. And because many of these puzzle pieces are people with infinite shadings of color and texture, we need to understand them deeply as a precursor to arranging them well.

So, how do we really understand the members of our team? What do we need to know? Over my eighteen years of leadership, I've learned that to have a high-performing, driven (and joyful) team, I need to know each team member's strengths and who they are as a person. To do that, I continue to use a whole-brain approach that is both systemized and intuitive. First, I have everyone take a strengths assessment, which helps clearly define some of my team members' most dominant gifts and bring them into shared awareness. As a hands-on leader, I also regularly talk with my employees, holding one-on-one meetings at least once a month. I communicate freely in a direct, caring way and ask that they be equally clear and forthcoming. Ensuring this happens, of course, requires fostering a culture of openness, mutual respect and acceptance of imperfection.

When you know your team members at this level, it provides the raw material you need to let your creativity and intuition find the perfect fit in placing and moving people, as often as needed (because leadership puzzles are always evolving). It lets you tap potential and give life to your vision in a way that knowing just the details on a résumé will never match. It helps you solve one of the biggest puzzles you face as a leader — how to create an organization that optimizes strengths and passions and increases flow and achievement.

Related: 3 Ways to Learn More About Your Team and How They Work

Your step-by-step guide

As a leader, we have continual puzzles to solve, and when using our whole brains, each one becomes a vibrant opportunity. When we work with our analytical minds, as well as our creativity and intuition, we can find solutions that achieve strategic outcomes, maximize strengths and even turn negatives into positives. Drawing upon our full, mental powers as we work the puzzle, we can make magic. Here is the whole-brain approach to leadership in a few simple steps:

  1. Sort the puzzle pieces: your people, roles and business needs. Ask the big questions, and strategize.

  2. Set a vision for how your team will look and work together, and build out a creative and analytic framework to get there.

  3. Arrange the rest of the pieces, based on your deep understanding of them. Test to know your team's strengths; also communicate, connect and listen in order to better understand team members as individuals. Then place people and move them as needed until everything clicks — strengths are maximized and individuals are excited to keep growing.

  4. Keep working the puzzle, with analysis and intuition, as your team and business continue to evolve. Nothing stays the same, so you'll have to reapproach the puzzle again and again.

  5. Remember that this work isn't always easy. It takes time and a strategic vision, and it requires you to really get to know your team. It also takes patience. We, as leaders, aren't perfect, and neither are our employees. But with mutual respect for what makes us unique and what we contribute to the puzzle, we can find brilliant ways to come together.

Taja Dockendorf

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Owner and Creative Director at Pulp+Wire

Founder, and creative director of Pulp+Wire a 100% female-founded and run CPG strategic brand, packaging, and digital launch agency. Taja has consulted, created, and grown over 400 brands while fostering a culture around growth, and intuitive leadership for her female-forward team.

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