I love puzzles, and I've included lots of them in this blog. They're fun challenges, perfect for sharing, and a great way to test a range of thinking skills. But they also reveal the serious professional benefits that come from learning how to think creatively.
I was reminded of this when I read "The Creative Thinking Handbook," the new book from creativity guru Chris Griffiths. It's sprinkled with puzzles that illustrate the dos and don'ts of problem solving. Griffiths shows what a difference it can make when we develop a robust creative process – as individuals, teams and entire organizations.
Before writing, I spent 10 years as a teacher, and I often used puzzles to stretch my students' thinking. As the kids grappled with intriguing problems, they gained the confidence to take risks, to keep going, and to be creative as part of a team.
Now, after moving back into a business environment, I realize that these skills are more important in the workplace than ever. So try to match wits with me – and, in the process, see how you can start to think better, and achieve more, wherever you work.
Let's start with one of my favorites.
Puzzle 1: If these nine dots were printed on paper, how could you link all nine by drawing just four straight lines – and without taking your pen off the page?
Have a go – it's not as easy as it looks! If you're stuck, see if someone nearby has any ideas. And try to recognize how you tackle this puzzle – because your strategies here should reveal a lot about your approach to problem solving as a whole.
In case you don't crack it, the answer to this and all my other puzzles are at the end of the blog. But try to resist the temptation to look too soon! You've got a lot to gain from stretching your thinking skills, and persisting even if your first attempt fails. It's like resistance training for your brain, building strength to tackle the real-life problems that crop up every day.
Puzzles get you thinking and learning in new ways. They force you to challenge the idea that there's only one way of doing things, and they train you to explore a range of options. By doing that, you develop a much richer understanding of any situation, and get your "creative juices" flowing.
You also get a taste of metacognition – "thinking about thinking." If you let them, puzzles will give you valuable insights into the way you approach problems. And the more alert you are to what's going on in your brain when you're in puzzle-solving mode, the more you'll gain, and the faster you'll grow.
Your experiences should also help others to unlock their creativity. And by leading creative-thinking teams, you can make your whole organization more exciting, more innovative, and more successful.
In puzzles, as in life, you often learn more from your mistakes. It's particularly important to notice which styles of thinking help you to find answers, and which get in the way. In fact, many of the best puzzles are designed to tempt you into these thinking "traps."
Puzzle 2: A horse is tied to a 10-foot rope, so how does it reach the bale of hay 15 feet away? (This question tempts you to make assumptions – which are so often the enemies of creative problem-solving.)
Puzzle 3: If a plane crashes exactly on the border between France and Germany, in which country should the survivors be buried? (Many people get this one wrong by overlooking the obvious.)
Puzzle 4: Bob and Ben were born on the same day, to the same parents, but they aren't twins. How come? (You'll only solve this puzzle if you can take a seemingly impossible situation, and find a new way of looking at it.)
When the time comes to check the answers, notice any thinking traps you fell into. Think about whether you ever make the same mistakes with real-life problems!
As well as avoiding the traps laid by puzzles writers, you also need to have a range of effective thinking strategies if you're going to find the answers.
Puzzles are a great way to build confidence, and strengthen persistence, open-mindedness, and flexibility. As you work out exactly what a question is asking, discard any "red herrings," and try various positive tactics until one works. In that way, you train yourself to take a strategic, energetic, and resilient approach to solving problems.
Use some more of mine to put yourself to the test.
For each of the following questions, choose a strategy to start with. But, if that doesn't work, find a different plan of attack. See what happens when you ask friends and family for their ideas. And don't give up. Sometimes, like Sherlock Holmes playing his violin, you'll need to go away and do something else to cut loose your creativity and make the breakthrough.
Puzzle 5: Where in the world does Friday come before Thursday?
Just as tricky is this:
Puzzle 6: Which substance is represented by the letters HIJKLMNO?
This is fiendish:
Puzzle 7: 3, 3, 5, 4, 4, 3, 5, 5, ? What's next in this numeric code – and why?
Our brains work through connections, and puzzles strengthen our ability to make links, see patterns, and piece things together. They also provide a rich opportunity to collaborate with other people.
Word problems are particularly good for this. When you work on a cryptic crossword with a friend, for example, you have the opportunity to explore someone else's understanding of the possibilities of language.
You find yourself looking at words and phrases in a new light, making new connections, and exploring seemingly meaningless clues from different angles. Until, suddenly, something clicks.
Here are three to try now, on your own – or, even better, in collaboration with someone sitting nearby!
Puzzle 8: Mode of transport crashed in Nepal (5) (Clue: "crashed" means that there's an anagram here.)
Puzzle 9: Singer in tunnel visit. (5) (Clue: the singer's name is in "tunnel visit.")
Puzzle 10: Moscow funding? (7) (Clue: it's a word that could define "Moscow" AND "funding.")
In education, training, and in the world of work generally, I've seen the way that puzzles can inspire a curious, playful attitude. And it spreads. It can change the way any kind of organization works for the better.
As Griffiths shows in his book, creative companies are some of the most enjoyable to work in – and among the most successful in the long term.
One reason for this is that playing around with puzzles gets you used to making mistakes. Good puzzle-solving involves free thinking and gathering a range of ideas from the whole team.
But it also requires staying focused on the question, and making sure that your solution answers it well.
These days, there's no shortage of puzzles to challenge yourself with, in books, magazines and online. So take every chance you get to put your brain to work, and to share the fun with others.
Most importantly, see what happens when you put your problem-solving skills to use. You'll likely have a different outlook on real-world problems, because you'll have a range of powerful ways to solve them.
And here's one more puzzle from me to keep you practicing this creative – but concerted – approach. Why not share it with your colleagues? One person might solve it, or maybe you'll get there together.
Puzzle 11: You've put a coin inside an empty wine bottle and sealed it with a cork. How can you remove the coin without pulling the cork out of the bottle, and without damaging the bottle or the cork?
As "Creative Thinking Handbook" author Chris Griffiths puts it, creative thinking is about much more than "thinking outside of the box." It's about getting rid of the box altogether! And that's why I chose the puzzle at the start of this blog – because you won't solve it by staying within the confines of the grid itself.
You need to stretch some of your lines beyond its boundaries, and move into the white space outside.
When you're ready, there's a diagram below to explain the full, surprisingly simple (though sneaky!) solution.
It's a great feeling when you solve a puzzle like this. But the best puzzles should keep you entertained and intrigued while you're still wrestling with them, allowing you to enjoy the process of training your creative brain.
So, see how well you get on with the ones I've set here – maybe with "The Creative Thinking Handbook" by your side! Share them to challenge your friends. And see if you notice a difference when you put your new, confident problem-solving strategies into action at work.
"The Creative Thinking Handbook, Your Step-by-Step Guide to Problem Solving in Business," by Chris Griffiths with Melina Costi, is published by Kogan Page. If you're a Mind Tools Club member, you can listen to our review of the book here.
2. The other end of the rope isn't tied to anything.
3. Survivors don't need to be buried anywhere.
4. They're two of a set of triplets.
5. In a dictionary.
6. Water: "H to O"! (H2O)
7. 4 (As the question says, it's a "numeric" code, but it's based on the number of letters in each number word: one (3 letters), two (3), three (5), and so on. So the next number is nine, which has four letters in it.)
11. Push the cork into the bottle.
When my friend Pete told me that his cancer was back, I stammered some platitudes about always having hope, being strong. You know the sort of thing. What I simply couldn't do was ask him how he felt. And I've known him for over 30 years...
"Mental health issues are often based on the tension between what one has achieved and what one has the potential to become." - Clive Lewis
"Running into that thing makes our anxiety spike – and we start telling stories in our head about what an inadequate person we are."