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Problem Solving is Like a Puzzle

This week I'm working on a puzzle.

Actually, I'm working on a lot of puzzles - some of them involve helping clients and some of them involve personal goals I'd like to accomplish this week, this month and in this new year.

Yes - it is a new year and, despite all the is happening in the nation right now, I still feel hopeful. I still feel like digging in and doing things better this year.

I want to acknowledge that with uncertainty surrounding us, it is no small feat to get out of bed, get dressed (with real clothes), read the newspaper and get to work. I am so grateful to have work that I love, people that I cherish and hobbies that I enjoy.

As I was working with several clients this week, there was one strong theme - some problems actually are easy to solve - even problems that seem big can be tackled if we break it down into smaller pieces.

It's one reason I love strategic planning - we gather input from internal/external experts, assimilate/examine the data, outline priorities and create an action plan. Suddenly, things that may have seemed unachievable now appear more manageable.

When I work on a puzzle at home, I open the box and start picking out the edges of the puzzle. Other times, I'll focus on assembling an image that really appeals to me and I'll search through the pieces looking for colors, edges or words. I have a systematic way for assembling the finished product and I'll bet you have your own method. (Thinking about how you systematically work - and eventually complete - a puzzle may be helpful as you break down any number of puzzles that you face in your own life - at work, at home, or anywhere else.

Let's break it down.

The only way to get from here to there is to break it down - one step at a time. One piece at a time.

Here's a method to follow.


First, put things in perspective. Get a sense of the big picture by breaking it down into pieces. If you want to work on personal goals, think about the things that matter to you. What are the pieces of your life where you spend chunks of time? Write down key words that come to mind (e.g., work, family, personal healthy/wellness, etc.). List these areas and/or create a picture of all the things that matter in your life. You might create a picture/diagram that has you at the center with a line connecting you to a series of bubbles with key words written in each bubble.

If you'd like to apply this method at work, strategic priorities can provide grounding. If your organization has priorities already defined, then take your grounding from there - facilitate a discussion with your team and discuss what matters now. Some things have changed as a result of key issues that have arisen in our nation/world in the last year. Reaffirm and/or revise priorities. If there are no priorities in place yet, you might conduct a SWOT Analysis - collect data on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats or check in with your team members with a "Team Pulse Check" that looks at what's working/not working. Use that data to define priority areas. If you can, involve internal and external experts to gain strength of analysi


Take a close look at your list. What's missing? Are there areas you'd like to focus on - maybe some things that you haven't had or made time for in the past but things that are critically important to you, your mission and/or your organization? What are the areas you'd like to be focusing on if you had time and resources to do so? Be sure to include these areas in your big picture thinking. Maybe you'd like to go back to school, learn something new, address physical health issues. Maybe your organization has capacity or program expansion ideas.

Dreams matter. If we don't include them in our big picture thinking, they are not likely to happen. Keep your individual and collective dreams on the agenda.


With the areas of your personal/organizational life listed - let's set some priorities. You may have one area that jumps out as a priority area for attention. Make note of that and then break it down into smaller pieces. For example, if you want to expand your professional capacity, what are some of the ideas you have that excite you and/or give you energy? If you want to explore going to school, break that process into smaller steps - you may need to explore the application process, funding options, etc. List these sub-areas so you can take them on one step at a time.

Getting from here to there usually involves 15 minutes of research, a phone call, a conversation with someone in your support network, or taking time to create a weekly/daily "want to do/need to do" list.

If you are in an organizational setting, the process is the same - the extra step is involving your team in the priority-setting, action-step discussions - especially if they are the ones who are responsible for executing key actions. If you have collected data, utilize that data to create a more detailed picture. You probably have listed big priority areas (e.g., revenue development, program excellence, board/staff development, diversity, etc.). For any one of those areas, what are the smaller areas of attention? For an area like revenue development, perhaps donor expansion, donor engagement or grant exploration are sub-areas that you would like to focus on. What's the trajectory you'd like to take for any one of the items you've listed? Perhaps you'd like to reimagine, expand, revise or diversify. (Your trajectory will always be an action verb that conveys the energy behind what needs to happen.)

Remember that in this step, we are looking for areas of attention rather than detailed lists of actions that need to be taken.

The process of prioritizing, brainstorming and breaking it into smaller steps is common to all problem-solving - in our personal, professional and/or organizational lives.


Use some version of Smart Art - get out your colored pens if you're doing this by hand - and create a picture or diagram of the big pieces you have just mapped out. This picture and the sub-areas you've detailed will comprise your map. It's easy to get bogged down, feel like we're not making progress, or convince ourselves that something is too big to tackle.

It's helpful to have a picture to refer to - just like looking at the box that has a picture of the puzzle you're working on. It can be used to remind ourselves of the bigger picture when we get bogged down in executing small steps. It should also be referred to when creating a list of priorities for the week ahead.


Keep this picture/priority list before you - put it in the front of your notebook - include it on an agenda. Use it to create an action plan as appropriate. For personal use, you might use it to create your weekly checklist of things you want/need to do. In an organizational setting, you are likely to set quarterly and annual goals with your priorities as a guide. It should also guide individual actions as your team members reach for the same goals and priorities.

As appropriate, systematically work your priority - one step at a time.


The only way to solve a problem and/or bring more satisfaction to our lives is to envision a future state - break it down into areas - and systematically work your priorities - one step at a time.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed sometimes by all the problems that there are to solve - but all we can do is focus forward and keep stepping with priorities in mind. Know what’s important. Be willing to readjust course. Reward and acknowledge every step taken - no matter how small.

Puzzles are solved piece by piece. Goals are reached in the same way and it’s the only way to solve a problem. Take it one step at a time - one day at a time.

Wishing you clarity, confidence and energy to define and do the things that matter to you.

Supporting your success, Kathy

© Kathy Sturgis, Ph.D. Kathy is founder of Refreshment Zone and is a strategic planner and organizational/personal development specialist with a doctorate in communication. Contact for more information on strategic planning, team building, communication programs or motivational programs.


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