Puzzle Thinking: A Brand New Way For Teams to Work Together and Solve Problems Using the Power of Puzzle-Solving

Puzzle thinking is a new model of thinking that Invite Japan has developed–one that is meant to spur teams’ curiosity and help them solve problems in an effective and relationship-building way.  

This whole month we’ve been discussing various models and ways of thinking. We’ve talked about design thinking, lateral thinking, systems thinking, creative and logical thinking, plus a model that looks at different types of thinkers in the workplace. The goal in all of this has been to become more aware of how different styles of thinking can be used on teams– to help them look at problems differently and to unlock new ideas and avenues of creativity.

So as we wind down this series, we thought it would be fun to create our own thinking model. And since many of our team building activities at Invite Japan are centered around puzzles, naturally we decided to call our thinking model “Puzzle Thinking”.

Just as design thinking takes its cures from web-based design and UX, and systems thinking gets its inspiration from systems and software engineering, puzzle thinking is based on puzzles and how they operate. 

We at Invite Japan have been in the puzzle business since 2015. We operated an escape game facility, have designed our own original puzzle-based team building programs, and have watched hundreds of different teams play our games. So we have a wealth of experience and knowledge when it comes to how puzzles work and their effects on teams. 

Our puzzle thinking model therefore distills a lot of this institutional knowledge and information. It shows that teams can utilize the lessons from puzzle-solving to solve real world challenges as well.

So without further ado, let’s introduce you to puzzle thinking…

Underlying concepts of the puzzle thinking process

There are two fundamental concepts that underlie this model, which define our approach to puzzles, and are important to keep in mind as we go through the rest of our model: curiosity and lateral thinking.


Having a curiosity-minded attitude means being open to new information and experiences. Every new situation is a chance to learn something new, and even failure can be a source of new knowledge. 

Being curious is crucial in puzzle-solving because it leads to actually engaging with the puzzles themselves and being willing to challenge yourself as you go along. Without curiosity, there is no fun or enjoyment in puzzle-solving. 

In this way, curiosity is also a method of releasing yourself from expectations. Being curious about the world means that you don’t necessarily know for sure what will happen, or whether you are right about everything. Rather, you are willing to see what happens and look forward to finding out the result, whatever it may be. 

Lateral thinking 

We discussed lateral thinking in depth in another blog post, but just to review, lateral thinking is a type of thinking that emphasizes looking at multiple possibilities and multiple perspectives. 

Rather than looking at a problem “vertically”, where all of your ideas converge around the central problem, lateral thinking encourages ideas to branch out from the problem, allowing you to find new ways of looking at it and solving it.   

Lateral thinking provides the foundation for what puzzles are and what they do. They seek to challenge perspective, and usually involve a “twist” which tests the normal way of looking at a problem. This ultimately leads to a cathartic moment of realization (the famed “Aha moment”), wherein you recognize the shift in perspective that the puzzle has created, which can then lead to more opportunities of self-awareness. 

So the nature of puzzles relies on lateral thinking. Lateral thinking, similar to curiosity, also requires loosening or relaxing assumptions and conditions. You have to let go of your normal ways of thinking, and your usual expectations about how things “should be”,  in order to really absorb lateral thinking and all of its possibilities. 

The Puzzle Thinking Process 

1. Locate

The first step in the puzzle thinking process is to locate what puzzle you are doing next. This also means choosing where to focus your attention. You could be in a room full of puzzles, or you could have to find which puzzle is next because the order may not be clear. But the importance of this step is clear: you need to decide where you want to go next, and what you want the next problem you solve to be.

2. Observe

Once you know what you want to accomplish next, you can begin to observe the area or the context surrounding the puzzle/problem. Look at what’s near you and around you. What do you see? What’s missing or out of place? Are there any clues nearby? Are there any patterns? 

Perspective is important here. Sometimes you need to step back and look at the bigger picture of the area. Sometimes you need to get up close and investigate the details. And sometimes you even need to turn the problem itself on its head. Play with perspective at this point, and even if you start forming some hypotheses, don’t hold on to them. 

In fact, you can also “observe” how you are thinking at this stage, too. Are you nervous or do you feel rushed? Are you trying to get this done as fast as possible or are you taking time to consider all your options? Trying to observe your feelings and thinking patterns can help you stay objective and centered.  

3. Imagine 

This is the stage of the puzzle thinking process when you can let your brain loose. Now that you have your problem in sight and you’ve observed the context and situation, you can now begin to brainstorm solutions.

We use the phrase “imagine” here quite intentionally. You really need to “imagine” solutions to the problem and how you would “fill in the gaps” that the puzzle has left open. Linking back to lateral thinking, it’s important to not hold back or limit your imagination power, and to try to come up with as many solutions as possible. Even if solutions that you brainstorm seem silly or impossible, they may actually lead you to finding the right way later on. 

4. Decide

Once you have a number of solutions that you have imagined, now comes the tough part of actually deciding which one you will. This step in the puzzle thinking process is where you commit to your ideas, or follow through on them. You have confidence in your decision, even if you still have doubts about whether it is the right one. But in that moment, everything you have is behind the idea you decided on–this is it, you’ve made your choice.

The decision-making process will obviously be different depending on the situation. You may have a time constraint, or be busy with other tasks that demand your attention as well. Or you could be making the decision with other people, in which you may have conflicts about what ideas should be implemented. Regardless, it’s important to focus on this step and look at how you make decisions, so that you can repeat the same process (or make it better) next time. 

5. Reflect

Now that you’ve implemented your idea, take some time to reflect. This reflection includes whatever feedback you receive from implementing your idea–either things that you noticed when you implemented it, or from other people around you who can give you criticism. So listening, and absorbing the effects of what you’ve done, is a big aspect of the reflection phase, whether you are working alone or as a group.

Obviously, in puzzle-solving, the immediate feedback is going to be whether you solved the puzzle or not. A lock will open, or something new will pop out, or you will be shown that your answer was correct in some way. 

Ask yourselves what went right if you were correct, or what went wrong if you weren’t. Make note of what your feelings were about your decision, and if your decision-making process could be improved. 

6. Move on

The last phase of the puzzle thinking process is to move on. This might seem to contradict the preceding step, and it is important to reflect as much as possible, but in the end you have to move on to the next problem, or try a different approach. Dwelling too much on failure or on not succeeding as well as you had hoped won’t change anything. The only thing that can change is your actions during the next challenge.

Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting. Celebrate your wins and reflect on failures. But it’s important not to stay in the same place or mindspace. Viewing challenges as only one piece in a much larger challenge of bettering yourself and your team is way more important, and will help you to develop more in the long-run. What’s important is to keep moving forward.

As a result of this, it’s ok to admit that you can’t do it alone and ask for outside help. A lot of players feel self-conscious about asking for help, when in reality it is not a sign of failure but a way of moving forward and possibly being more successful in the end.

Lessons from puzzle thinking for teams

So that is our puzzle thinking process in a nutshell. It’s a basic outline, and we may expand on it in the future. But for now, here are some important lessons and takeaways that teams can glean from this model:

1. It’s ok to fail 

Puzzle thinking encourages teams to not be afraid of failure. Teams should imagine different ideas and try to implement them as much as they can, and also not be afraid of trying different ideas for the same problem. If teams don’t succeed, they will have learned something and can therefore move on to a different idea.  

Along with this, it’s ok to ask for help from the outside. When you’re really stuck, getting help can keep you moving forward. It’s sometimes not worth it to hold onto pride, when doing so involves keeping you from reaching your goals.

2. Proximity gives you the tools to succeed 

In other words, the answer is usually right in front of you. With puzzles, you have everything you need to succeed in the area around you. The only thing stopping you is your own perspective. Shift it, and you can discover what you may have overlooked. The same is true for teams–they have the resources to solve any problem, all that’s required is becoming aware of the tools and skills that they already have available.

3. Combine as many perspectives and skills as possible 

With puzzles, to succeed you need to always be looking for a new perspective, which can then help you when new puzzles come along. Not every puzzle is the same, which is the same for problems too. So having teams that are composed of a diversity of perspectives is important, as is taking the time to actually listen and learn from those perspectives. Likewise, a balance of multiple skills will make your team more resilient in the future, and more capable of solving different types of problems. 

4. Challenge expectations and assumptions

Puzzle-solving naturally challenges your assumptions and expectations (as we explained earlier when we discussed lateral thinking). The turn or reveal is meant to play on your assumptions about what should be. 

But puzzle thinking ecourages teams to take this attitude into the real world as well. Letting go of assumptions and expectations about how the world should be, or how each team should be, can allow teams to truly activate their potential and change the world on their own terms, rather than accepting the limitations around them. In this way, teams can really break through their boundaries and push beyond their limits. 

Main photo by Taras Hrytsak on Unsplash

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