Executing a Project is like Assembling a Jigsaw Puzzle

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Apr 18, 2021
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For the past year the COVID-19 virus has forced us to limit our exposure to the outside world. This virus has given us a need to find a home activity to entertain ourselves and our families. One of the activities I have pursued is assembling jigsaw puzzles. As you may know, a jigsaw puzzle is a challenge in assembling picture pieces into a single image. They come in various shapes and sizes. After doing a number of these puzzles, I noticed the similarity between this fun activity and executing a project.

Let’s assume you search the Internet for a jigsaw puzzle and purchase one with a picture, size (time), and cost to your liking and needs – for example, a 1000 piece landscape. Your puzzle choice depends mostly on your attraction to the picture, the measurement of your assembly site, and time available (considering lock-ins, time may not be a factor). This selection may be true on your project assignment. Your firm may provide you a choice: infrastructure or application, local or global for instance.

Within days you have the puzzle delivered; now the fun starts. Imagine opening the puzzle box and formulating your plan of attack. Your look at the picture on the box (which may not be in-scale [1] of the puzzle), remove the shrink wrap, and open the puzzle contents. If you are lucky, the puzzle includes an in-scale poster of the puzzle and of course all (...you hope!) the pieces for assemble. If no in-scale poster is provided then you need to imagine the in-scale picture yourself.

On a project basis, this is similar to receiving your project charter from your project sponsor. The charter typically contains a project vision with the expected results. It may include the project timeframe (deadlines) and economics (cost justification). If not, you have the opportunity/luxury of developing the project work schedule and confirming the benefits. This is like the picture on the puzzle box, but a lot more complicated since you, as project manager, now have to defend the project schedule and cost economics to the stakeholders.

Typically the puzzler searches for the edges to construct the puzzle border. This is similar to understanding the boundaries of your project – the triple constraint – time, money, and scope. The puzzle edges are mixed in with the rest of the puzzle pieces. Having the edges already separated in a separate bag, it would be like having the triple constraint defined in the charter. This eliminates initial fun and discovery; it essentially transforms the project assignment to more of a work scheduler rather than a project manager.

However, even if the puzzle border is somewhat defined, the majority of the fun and discovery is in putting together the center of the picture. The challenge of course is fitting each puzzle piece in the correct picture place. At this point you may ask family members to help, showing them the puzzle picture and explaining to them your plan of attack. The next step is another level of sorting, in particular with larger puzzles. Flip all the pieces picture side up and create piece groups of shape or color to help organize the work. In this sorting phase, it is good practice to create groups [2] that appear to have something in common such words, lines, or figures; look over the puzzle picture landscape for possible groupings. These groups will be good candidates for initial assembly and later attachment to the border. This is much better than tackling the entire puzzle at one time.

With the triple constraint in mind, you do this in developing the first draft of the waterfall project schedule or series of agile sprints. You also consider what the serial and parallel tasks are anticipated. You start thinking of resources, call a meeting to announce the challenge ahead, and ask for input on availability along with work estimates. With this confirmation, you then inform stakeholders of what charter adjustments may be needed to proceed with the work.

In the puzzle world, it now comes down to “does the piece fit.” The larger the puzzle, the harder it is to find a piece to match the color, shape and context of the picture. I have done puzzles from 500 to 3000 pieces and the fit solution is much harder due to the number of possibilities. This is why the sorting process is vital with large puzzles. Of course if a piece is can not be found, some time is usually spent on blame for a potentially missing piece.

  • The piece must have been lost during the manufacturing process – phooey
  • Family help must have caused a piece(s) to fall to the floor – everyone search your pant cuffs and shoes
  • My pet must have grabed it – did it for wanting attention
  • Somehow it jumped off the table (mind of its own)

Believe me, most of the time, it is there in the piece pile, you just have not recognized it yet. Always try to fit a possible piece; you may be surprised that it fits. Persistence is our only option; there is no possibility of changing the picture. You could just quit – never, that unfinished puzzle would haunt you forever!

Side Bar
By the way, some puzzle manufactures provide piece replacement; of course you will have to live with the chagrin when you find the “missing” piece – in the couch, under the table, in the vacuum bag, or in the pet food dish (ugh).


On projects you are constantly discovering problems and looking for solutions. Hopefully, you focus on lessons learned and process improvement - not blame. But the challenge for problem resolution is no less difficult. You just need to analyze the situation, find alternative solutions within the triple constraint, and decide a road to pursue. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, you have the option of asking the stakeholders for more money, more time, or a change in scope (good luck with that!).

As you progress with the puzzle, the work moves from hard to easy with the shrinking of the piece pile (fewer possibilities). The same applies with a project, the work knowns increase and the risk level decreases. There is a certain gratification upon inserting the final piece just like the closing of a project. Time to celebrate, catalog all the lessons learned, update best practices (puzzle and project), and of course prepare to move to your next puzzle/project consideration [3], [4].

References/footnotes:

  1. The picture on the puzzle box may be greatly reduced in size and does not provide in-scale puzzle piece details. This is particularly true for large puzzles – 3000 pieces and above. For instance, I had a 3000 piece puzzle that the border pieces did not match the picture on the box; the edge shape was my only indication of a border piece.
  2. Use some form of trays (e.g., paper plates) to separate the piece groups.
  3. If the puzzle is of some significance, you may decide to glue and frame the picture. Project documentation should be archived within the Project Management Office (PMO) library for lessons learned and best practice analysis.
  4. A comment on moving on to your next project: Always visit the realization of the benefits at the end of a project. Unlike puzzles, you should not see project completion as the end goal; the end goal is the realization of the benefits.

Author: Mr. Monteleone holds a B.S. in physics and an M.S. in computing science from Texas A&M University. He is certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP®) by the Project Management Institute (PMI®), a Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP®) by the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA®), a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) and Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) by the Scrum Alliance. He holds an Advanced Master's Certificate in Project Management and a Business Analyst Certification (CBA®) from George Washington University School of Business. Mark is also a member of the Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering (AACE) and the International Association of Facilitators (IAF).

Mark is the President of Monteleone Consulting, LLC and author of the book, The 20 Minute Business Analyst: a collection of short articles, humorous stories, and quick reference cards for the busy analyst. He can be contacted via email - [email protected]

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