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10 ways puzzles are like problem solving

July 25, 2014

unfinished puzzle

I love jigsaw puzzles. I love doing them with my family at the cottage. I love how excited kids get when they make a connection or put the last piece in place. I love working on them late at night- too late because I just want to find one…more…piece. In this incredibly digital world, what’s the attraction with this hopelessly old fashioned pastime? Is it the satisfaction of completion? Is it the thrill seeing it come together? Yes and yes!

A few weeks ago at the cottage we worked on a puzzle that holds the Guiness Record for being the largest “find the difference” puzzle so there are 71 differences between the image on the box and the puzzle.

As I worked away at it methodically it occurred to me that puzzles are a great metaphor for social and organizational problem solving.

10 things puzzles teach us about problem solving

  1. You start with a view of the big picture.
  2. You establish a frame of reference.
  3. You sort through your “data” and start anywhere you see major similarities. (Quick wins are encouraging.)
  4. It takes time.
  5. Details matter. With close observation you gradually see small details – subtle nuances- in pieces that originally seemed uniform. Where you  thought the sky, snow or forest would  be next to impossible to assemble you see variations in shading. You make new connections.
  6. There are a million ways to solve your puzzle.  They aren’t solved in a linear way. Have you ever started at the top and worked your way down left to right or top to bottom?
  7. Sometimes large pieces fall into place.
  8. You may have to walk away, take a break or change seats to get a fresh perspective.
  9. You need to believe that you can finish.

When we cracked open the puzzle box during our cottage retreat my almost 8-year old daughter asked if I thought we could finish before it was time to pack up and go home. I said: “I’m not  sure. We’ll try.”  My bright girl huffed and said:

10.  “Well, you have to believe you can do it.” Puzzles and problem solving

Indeed! It appears that bit of wisdom applies to broader problems as well. What piece of the puzzle would you like to add to this list?

I hope you’re enjoying your summer.






International Day of Happiness

March 19, 2014

March 20 is the United Nation’s International Day of Happiness. It’s a day to recognize the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and  aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of  their recognition in public policy objectives. On a personal level it means recognizing that happiness and wellness are predicated on more than your income. It means being mentally and physically healthy, being able to breathe the air, having friends and the time to pursue the interests that make you who you are. It means advocating for the rights of everyone to have those: access to health care, safe work, a clean environment, community supports, art!

In honour of the International Day of Happiness. Here’s a personal short list of some of the things that make me happy.

  1. My kids: my daughter’s toothless grin and my son’s silly jokesP1020353
  2. Knowing that someone loves me no matter what
  3. Making a difference in my community – either in my kids school, promoting kindness or leadership
  4. Work that really matters and that stands the test of time
  5. Learning new things like flip turns at swimming or skiing this year
  6. Working with people who challenge me and who are generous with their knowledge
  7. Childhood friends
  8. The women in my book club and the conversations we have
  9. Sunshine after such a brutal winter
  10. Books, music, wine and any combination thereof
  11. Belting out show tunes
  12. Holidays that involve gift-giving
  13. Holding babies or giggling babies
  14. Birthday celebrations that last for weeks
  15. Sleeping in
  16. Blogging and rich online conversations
  17. Really great dessert
  18. Surprises
  19. Anticipating holidays
  20. Twinkle lights
  21. Looking at pictures of happy times
  22. 0hhhh I could go on…..

Doesn’t everyone deserve happiness? What makes you happy? What could you change in your workplace to boost happiness? If you could change one law in your community or country to help enhance overall happiness or well-being, what would it be?

If you’re stuck for ideas, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing provides extensive research and sound policy recommendations. An article in this week’s New York Times titled Income Gap meet the Longevity Gap also shows the impact of well-being in communities.

It makes me happy to know that you stopped in to read this post. It would make me even happier if you would share your thoughts.

Wishing you every happiness, Dominique


It came to me in a dream: “focus”

January 4, 2014

It was such a vivid dream. I am racing through a mall at lunch time carrying lots of packages when I see a colleague from another department in what appears to be an upscale salon. She is overseeing a video shoot featuring our CEO. (In my real world, every aspect of this is totally absurd. I hate shopping, usually work through lunch and our CEO will never be in a video shot in a salon!)

This colleague is doing something that is clearly my responsibility but there are too many people and obstacles between us for me to walk over. I have to take a huge detour through another section of the crowded mall but, no matter what I try, I can’t get back to the shoot.

At the same time, I’m trying call my boss so that she’s aware of what is happening. No amount of swiping the screen works. Suddenly, I’m outside. It’s winter. It’s snowing. I’m still carrying the packages, still trying to phone and now, there is an Olympic pool-sized pit of trampoline/bouncy mats that are a type sidewalk I have to cross.

It’s all quite serious. I’m being bounced around, trying to phone, trying to get back to the shoot where someone is doing my work. When I bounce out of the pit, I fall into the mud and have to pick myself up and all my belongings are caked in the boot-sucking mud.

I woke up  with one word in my mind: focus.

So that’s my word for 2014. It’s going to be tricky because I initially thought I’d apply a different leadership tip every week. Then I revised it because applying 52 different tips in a year (and building on them) might be too much. (I am getting wiser with the years.) I thought perhaps 24 best practices would be more reasonable (to give me a two week holiday). Now, applying the concept of focus, I’m going to pare that down further and determine the object of that focus.

I need to look into those metaphorical packages and eliminate or consolidate a few.

It’s going to be a challenge with competing work, family and volunteer commitments on top of wide-ranging interests – book club, maybe ski lessons,  blogging and exploring municipal politics in an election year. One thing is for certain, I will avoid carrying multiple packages while walking, bouncing and trying to call my boss.

What’s your word for 2014?

P.S. I wish there was a photo of this dream that I could post. That trampoline pit was crazy!

How to have better holiday conversations

December 21, 2013

“Would you please pass the gravy?” or “So, how are things?” are not good conversation starters. You can do better and have a much better time at any holiday when you start having meaningful conversations.

As my gift to you, and to myself, I’m recycling one of my favourite posts. It’s always appropriate and since I wrote it in April 2012, my family has had dozens of great conversations. While meandering through “Which family rule would you change?” to “What is your favourite family tradition?” or “What do you admire about someone at the table?” we’re teaching our kids to participate equally in conversation, to listen to others and that there are no wrong answers.

An innocent “What was your most memorable birthday present?” yielded a particularly rich discussion with my sister at her cottage this summer. It turns out her favourite birthday present was an outing for dinner and a movie alone with my Dad when my Mom was gravely ill. She was eight or so at the time. As an adult now, I can imagine the stress of the situation for my Dad – self-employed, four little girls and a very sick wife – the birthday might have seemed like one more thing to do. So there was nothing fancy, just dinner and a movie; yet the one-on-one time is what is most cherished by my sister. It also sparked  a great chat about how few kids movies came out in those days.

Have more meaningful conversationsYou can have more meaningful conversations too. If you’re short on ideas for questions, the post below has ideas to help. There are even apps for that!

As for me, my collection of questions continues to grow. I keep the deck of family dinnertime questions handy. Now, I am adding more grown-up questions to my repertoire with Chuck Klosterman‘s HYPERtheticals: 50 Questions for Insane Conversations. The back cover asks:

“You are offered a Brain Pill that will make you 10 percent more intelligent, but you will seem 20 percent less intelligent to everyone else. Do you take the pill?”

I can’t wait to crack open the box. I know I’ll learn a lot about people I think I know well.

Wishing you a happy holiday filled with meaningful conversations.

From the archives:

Put down the smartphone and ask a great question

April 1, 2012

starting great conversationsAt a business lunch, I noticed that almost everyone left their phones on the table in front of them. Are they waiting for someone more interesting to call? In a pub on St. Patrick’s Day, at least half the people were holding phones, telling others… what? That they are having such a great time? If that’s true, why don’t they put the phone down and say that to the people in front of them?

I have no objection to texting a friend so they can meet up with you but when you are intent on documenting all your moments for people who are not there, aren’t you missing out on the experience of actually being present, with the people who are there? Or if you are constantly checking your phone to read other people’s Facebook posts, texts, Tweets or e-mails, are you telling the people you are sitting with that you’d rather be elsewhere? Then last week I saw a woman take her iPhone to communion. Seriously…. someone more important than God is going to call, text, Tweet, Facebook or BBM you in the 30 seconds it takes you to walk up there?

Shake it off people! I know it’s our reptilian brain that is easily distracted. It’s the ego that’s fed whenever others respond to your picture, post or Pinterest…. but we are not Pavlove’s Dog. We do not have to react to every flashing light, every beep, every tweet and text.

As my high school French teacher used to say when the bell rang: “Dogs respond to bells. People respond to other people.” So the next time you’re sitting at a lunch, hanging out in a pub or having a meal with friends or family, embrace the opportunity to get to know something new about the people around you, to deepen your relationships and to challenge your assumptions. You can’t do that in a tweet or Facebook post.

In his book, You Should Have Asked, Stewart Knight recounts how asking “Which Canadian do you most admire?” at a family reunion led to a rich conversation about his father’s immigrant roots and political hero and his mother’s literary tastes – two aspects of his parent’s lives he had completely ignored until that day. His book offers an easy approach to creating powerful conversations by asking good questions. Knight writes:

“With powerful conversations, instead of learning where a person lives, you will discover one of their favourite childhood memories. With powerful conversations, instead of knowing what a person does for a living, you will find out what that person does as a passion. You will discover the intricate and fascinating details of what makes that person who they are” (p.38).

Not only will you benefit from a more interesting discussion and a deeper relationship but, according Robert Cialdini author of Influence: Science and Practice, when you identify something you have in common with another person, that similarity leads to liking, reciprocity, stronger networks and a greater ability to accomplish your personal or professional objectives. Within an organization, research from Ken Blanchard found that connectedness to the leader – the extent to which leaders make an effort to build rapport and personal and professional relationships – leads to greater discretionary effort and higher intent to remain with your organization. Connectedness to colleagues – the extent to which colleagues make an effort to build rapport and personal and professional relationships – is also positively correlated with discretionary effort and organizational citizenship behaviours.  So people who feel connected to their co-workers are more apt to go the extra mile at work. Bottom line: there are compelling personal and professional reasons to be fascinated by others, to honour their uniqueness and to ditch the small talk:

1. Ask open ended questions like:

  • What do you like most about what you do?
  • What led you to this type of work/hobby/pursuit?
  • What would you change about your industry/community/legislation/etc?
  • What did you want to be when you were a child?

To borrow a few from Knight (and he has a ton of great ones):

  • Out of all the jobs in the country, which one do you think would have the most devastating impact on society if those people didn’t show up for work? And what would be the worst day of the year for them to not show up? Why?
  • Ask people why they live, work or travel where they do.

2. Listen and build your next question on what you have just heard.

3. Stop worrying that asking questions makes you look like you don’t know anything – you certainly don’t know everything so get over it.

4. Ask how things work, why they are that way, what makes a process so difficult. 

5. Embrace the opportunity to learn!

Great questions are the ultimate mobile app so use them wherever you go! After reading Knight’s book, my husband started asking our kids a ‘Question of the Night’ at the dinner table and the conversations are fantastic. It gives the kids a chance to practice listening skills and also to respond to a serious question where there’s no right answer. Our favourites include:

  • If you could go anywhere on a family vacation where would we go and why?
  • If you had a superpower, what would it be?
  • When you are a parent, which rules will you enforce in your home?
  • If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  • Who is your favourite character in a book?ask better questions at the dinner table

To boost our dinner table topic creativity I recently purchased The Box Girls Family Diner Box of Questions. Try these at home, with friends or at the office or leave the cards out on tables during a party and watch the level of conversation rise! Another great resource (that also comes with a mobile App) is the Story Starter Pack. My favourite question here is : “If you could dig a tunnel from your house to anywhere in the neighbourhood/country/world, where would it go?”

You deserve the gift of more fun, meaningful and memorable conversations and the deeper relationships that result from them. Your co-workers, friends and family deserve to feel worthy of your attention. Try it! You can tell everyone about it on social media…. later. And, please tell me…. what’s your favourite “deep question” ? And what happened the last time you asked one?

Untangling complex problems

December 12, 2013

untangling complex problemsThe Christmas lights were horribly tangled. How does this happen when they are just sitting in a box for the year?  As I started from one end, created some slack, gave some random shakes accompanied by some frustrated words, I started to think about how we approach complex organizational “tangles.” You know, the issues that are years in the making, fraught with politics and personalities, history and policy?

Here’s my shortlist – and reminder to myself- for tackling complex tangles. In no particular order:

  • Determine whether this is a problem worth solving. First, I plugged in the lights. Had they been burned out, then it would not have been worth spending the time to untangle them. It might have been easier to replace the string or to consider other alternatives.
  • Relax. This is going to take some time so settle in. The problem didn’t happen quickly so acknowledge that the solution won’t be quick either. Like the Chinese finger traps the more you tug and struggle, the tighter the snare. While difficult and counter-intuitive, you need to relax.
  • Take the long way ’round. The path is rarely linear. Sometimes you have to loop backwards or work on a different section.
  • Just try something. Sometimes you just have to start somewhere. You may not be sure if your approach will work but there’s no harm in trying – it’s already tangled. Could you make it worse? Perhaps but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • Don’t pull! Adding tension to the problem only makes it harder to solve. Especially where people are concerned. Are people tugging on different parts of the strand and exacerbating the problem?
  • Question your intent. Are you focused on a solution for its own sake or are you in it for yourself? If it’s the latter, could this be a source of resistance from others? If the solution is for the greater good, can you involve others?
  • Ask for help. Could someone give you a different perspective? Do they see the problem differently than you do? Do they know any special tips or tricks? Or could they just give you a little moral support? Successful and lasting change involves many people.
  • Explore options to avoid new tangles. As you make progress, explore options to avoid new tangles. How would you do things differently to avoid being in the same place a year from now?

On this last point, if you know how to avoid Christmas light tangles I’m all ears. Happy holidays and may all your days be tangle free!

Nelson Mandela: long may you inspire

December 6, 2013

I could not let the day pass without adding my humble tribute to the millions of more eloquent ones around the globe.

  • A man whose vision transformed his 8×8 prison cell into a university.
  • A man whose hope was undiminished during 27 years in prison.
  • A man whose forgiveness earned him the trust needed to unite a divided country.
  • A man whose courage led him to denounce the world’s superpowers in his fight for social justice
  • A man whose perseverance changed his country and the world.

May our current leaders be inspired and aspire to the moral leadership Nelson Mandela exemplified.  May they seek to unite rather than to divide.

Is the Senate scandal a supercharged change management tactic?

October 25, 2013
English: The chamber of the Senate of Canada

The chamber of the Senate of Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m appalled by the antics in Ottawa right now. They erode trust faster than a wave on a sandcastle. But I want to know why it’s happening.

Why did the Conservative government draw attention to Senate expenses now? They had to know about lax and unequally applied regulations. They had to know that funding improprieties would draw questions about why the majority party has not made good on a party platform to abolish the Upper House.

Despite the sensationalism, why the focus on relatively small potatoes? Contracts for F-35s are worth $25 billion over 20 years. Cancelled gas plants in Ontario are in the neighbourhood of $500 million. Those are big scandal dollars. In the case of the Senate expense scandal we’re talking about $90,000 – $100,000. The audit has to cost more than that.

We have to ask: Why would a political party do this to itself? Why would it throw its own appointees under a very public bus? No one looks good in this scenario.

Today a headline in the Globe and Mail read, “The Senate drama: So lacking in good guys, it must be a European movie.”

Is it entertainment? Is it fiction “inspired by true events”?

Initially I wondered: While we’re watching the drama unfold, what else is happening? Are the expense allegations, backroom deals  and “he said-she said” political prestidigitation – slight of hand to divert attention from something bigger? What is the Senate expense scandal hiding? Is it designed to change a conversation? This is a government that has been masterful and ruthless in controlling its messaging from its first days as a minority government in Ottawa. There’s no reason to believe they would change their approach now.

Is Stephen Harper the Wizard of Oz behind the green curtain? Did he orchestrate the debate that has been raging for months? News reports are attracting crowds of Canadians around airport televisions. Office water coolers are buzzing with opinions. I’m all for public policy debate and interest in our political institutions. I think Canada needs far more of it, especially on constructive issues, but this feels off.

Then I remembered the first step of Kotter’s change management model: Establish a sense of urgency.

Is it possible that the Senate expense scandal is designed to spark public outrage over amounts that people can relate to? Then, the Conservatives could swoop in and communicate their vision for change, i.e., abolish or reform the Senate and build on the momentum.

Is it possible the accused Senators are collateral in a massive political drama/ communications tactic intended to manipulate Canadians? It wouldn’t be the first time that politicians created what psychologists call a “felt need for change.” In 1997, then minister of education and training, John Snobelen, was caught on video telling staff that “we need to create a crisis in education” to condition the electorate for major change. I’m sure other examples abound.

I don’t object to use of a proven change model. I’d argue it’s only ethical when it is an honest, transparent demonstration of compelling facts that move people to seek change. I applaud it if it prompts public policy debate that is about exploring ideas and not about tearing down people. I object when the “felt need” or “establishing a sense of urgency” is a red herring. I am outraged when the tactic erodes trust in our elected officials and in our institutions. The only possible bright side? People had to find out who their MP or Senator is and perhaps gave them a call or dropped them a line.

I hope I’m wrong. I’m not sure when I became such a cynic. For the record, I worked on Parliament Hill for years as a House of Commons page, a tour guide and a Parliamentary intern. I’m a fan of the Senate. The intent of the Upper Chamber is to represent regions and to balance the “representation by population” of the House of Commons. The Chamber of sober second thought is intended to introduce its own legislation and to study legislation sent to it from the House of Commons. Senators are not elected because the diverse group esteemed Canadians are supposed to tackle politically sensitive issues like euthanasia without the pressure of electoral cycles. But we’re being served a caricature of the worst stereotypes and it makes this girl wonder.


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