Is your meeting a puzzle or a mystery?

17th April 2013

Most of the meetings I get called in to facilitate are complex. Companies don’t tend to bring in external support for the day-to-day stuff, so it tends to be the tricky ones that get our attention.  I am often working with global groups, who have been brought together to resolve complex, strategic business problems. A chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, ‘What the Dog Saw’ have given me an interesting perspective on how to approach these types of meetings.

Gladwell talks about the distinction between puzzles and mysteries. A puzzle can be solved by obtaining more, factual information, whereas a mystery requires judgements and the assessment of uncertainty, usually in the face of too much information. He uses these examples to clarify the distinction. ‘Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer.’

If we look at the design of meetings aimed at resolving complex business problems through this lens..

  • Meetings that are puzzles require a design that diverges thinking in the group, sharing data from different perspectives e.g. from different functions or regions
  • Meetings that are mysteries require a design that converges thinking in the group, analytical tools that help cut through all the information to make effective judgements.

Gladwell also has some interesting distinctions that could be applied to the participants in these kinds of meetings…

‘Puzzles are “transmitter-dependent”, they turn on what we are told. Mysteries are “receiver-dependent”; they turn on the skills of the listener’
‘The principle elements of a puzzle all require the application of energy and persistence, which are virtues of youth. Mysteries demand experience and insight’

I think this is interesting food for thought in how we approach complex business problems.