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December 12, 2019

If You Can Solve These Puzzles, You'll Have a Head Start at Work!

Jonathan Hancock

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©©Getty Images/oonal

Puzzles for Professionals

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.

Puzzles and Riddles

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 for Learning

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.

Avoid the Thinking Traps

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."

For example:

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.)

Or this:

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.)

And this:

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!

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Positive Problem-Solving Strategies

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?

Puzzles With Words

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.")

Puzzles Boost Profits!

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.

Train Your Creative Brain

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?

Get the Answers – by Opening Your Mind!

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.

Puzzles in a New Light

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 Book Insight review.

Answers to the Puzzles


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.)

8. plane

9. Elvis

10. capital

11. Push the cork into the bottle.

About the Author

Jonathan was World Memory Champion and has written extensively about learning. He also spent 15 years as a BBC Radio presenter, followed by a decade as a teacher and school leader. Jonathan writes many different Mind Tools resources, as well as presenting videos and podcasts. He’s particularly proud of his articles about tackling discrimination, embracing neurodiversity, and supporting working parents. Jonathan enjoys running, crosswords, and traveling with his family. His top advice is to keep reflecting on how you feel about your work. “Life’s too short to be unhappy. If something’s not right – change it!”

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24 comments on “If You Can Solve These Puzzles, You'll Have a Head Start at Work!”

    1. Thank you Sr Helen for that feedback. Hope you enjoy more of our resources here to help with your learning and development.

  1. This is so interesting and thrilling. Although I could not get any correctly but am happy I tried it. Thank you

    1. Great that you tried these puzzles Somina! I also struggled with getting the correct answers when I tried it too! 😉

  2. In the first puzzle, why do you need to draw four lines?!! Try connecting the dots with THREE lines without lifting the pencil. It has a perfectly logical answer?

    1. You are indeed correct and you have done brilliantly to spot another solution! I think it takes a particular kind of brain to solve these puzzles! I know I am challenged with many of them!

      We are very impressed with your problem-solving skills and are grateful that you have highlighted another option to us. As a result, we're going to change the design of the puzzle, so that our solution is the only one that works.

  3. Problem 2 is also solvable if you assume the horse is staked to a post 10 feet away, as long as the bale is on the other side of the stake. In such a setup, the horse could reach a bale *20* feet from it.

  4. It has given complete different way of thinking, other side of coin. I could say Indirect Way of Thinking.
    Thank you, I will try similar way in my personal and professional life ahead.

    1. We're glad you found this helpful, Rajesh! Different ways of thinking and looking at challenges help us to see different (and new) solutions too. Good luck!

    1. Great to hear Prakash that you learned something from doing these puzzles. I definitely believe that they can stretch our thinking which in turn helps us when we face situations at work.

    1. Thanks, Harry, for that feedback. Puzzles certainly do stretch my thinking which in turn helps me as I approach work tasks!

  5. Helpful in a way that one stretches his or her thinking beyond the normal view.

  6. Great post! It was very informative and helpful!
    You always offer fresh ideas to all readers like me.

  7. I LOVE these puzzles! It makes us think ourside the box (no pun inended). Speaking of the box; what is the solution to the 9-dot puzzle using only 3 lines?

    1. Hi Craig - they're great, aren't they! I have to admit I get a bit frustrated by some of them - which probably means I should practice them a bit more.

      Craig, you ask what is the solution to the 9-dot puzzle using only 3 lines? The puzzle is to solve it in 4 lines, are you suggesting there's a way to do it in 3? If so I can't see it - do tell!

      Mind Tools Coach

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