Solving the Jigsaw Puzzle of Leadership

for American Management Association; Fall 2003.

Today, you can’t waste time, people or money. Your team must make the right choices from the start, ideally without your always having to be present. How can you do that?

To lead to repeatable success with decisions, you need to establish common ground rules or a framework for your team. The framework should define how your business invests in time, people and money. The decision rules need to be easy to use and easy to transfer to managers and individual contributors. The process is comparable to that of putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Let’s start at the beginning. When you put together a jigsaw puzzle, what is the first thing you do? Some people answer that they start with the edges. Some start with the colors. For others, the first step is to sort by shape. What if your task was to put together a jigsaw in the form of a business? Assume for a minute that your team has 20 minutes. If you make that schedule, you all get $20,000 to share. If you beat that time, your team receives an additional $1,000 per minute. However, for every minute that you miss the target, you lose $4,000. Finishing in 15 minutes gains you $25,000. When you hit 25 minutes, you get nothing. With that incentive, how would you ask your team to start? Edges? Colors? Shape?

Before you start looking for the edges, wouldn’t you look at the box top? Why? Because it gives you a clear picture of what you are trying to recreate. To get the right results at the right time, you’d start with the picture that you want to build.

The box top is what allows a person or a team to decide where a particular piece belongs. It
helps to show which pieces do not belong in the puzzle and can be set aside. The clearer the
picture, the more easily and quickly you can work the puzzle. A clear box top saves time, people
and money for your business.

Look at your physical and electronic in-boxes. As with puzzle pieces, you must sort and organize
all these data if they are to be of any use. A business day resembles an extended jigsaw puzzle. Disconnected pieces of potentially valuable information appear, and the team members must
arrange them into a comprehensible picture. The faster your business grows, the faster the data
appears, and each piece of trivia, data, fact, and random noise requires a decision—whether to
deal with the bit or not. This decision is about where, and where not, to invest resources.

Your task as the leader is not to make the decisions but to make the box top clear. To illustrate this, let’s look first at how a very small company beat a brace of giants in a hot market.


Jeff Hawkins of Palm Computing had a mission to build a successful handheld computing product. Palm was not the first company to try. IBM, Southwest Bell, Casio and Apple were among the companies that worked to create that market and failed before Palm. Hawkins thought that he had an answer. His box top was simple: four specific design goals that he would not negotiate. He told his team that the Palm Pilot had to be:

    Tiny—thoughtlessly portable.

    Able to communicate seamlessly with a personal computer—to be an accessory, not a separate computer.

    Fast and simple—the primary competition would be organizers, not PCs.

    Able to sell for less than $300.

Whenever members of his team would bring up a new idea, Jeff would pull a block of wood from his shirt pocket, the shape and size of the thoughtlessly portable Palm Pilot. He’d show it to the team and ask if the new idea fit within the four goals. If it didn’t, he asked the team to set the idea aside. Quickly, every employee knew the box top the firm’s leader would support. That was the box top that achieved market acceptance, and still leads the market today.


Here’s another example of the box-top principle in action. It involves Jan Carlzon, chief executive officer of SAS Airlines.

At the time Carlzon first headed SAS, the company was hemorrhaging money. Asked to return it to profitability and growth, he faced hundreds of decisions. The challenge: how could he lead the team to good decisions without wasting people, time and money?

Early in the job, Carlzon found himself looking at a $2 million decision to buy new food carts for the planes. This decision had been taking time and attention away from the carrier’s executives for more than five years. Proponents argued that new carts would improve customer service and flight attendant morale. Opponents argued that the airline couldn’t afford either the expense or the message it would send to the employees. Carlzon chose not to make the cart decision, but to work with his team to develop a box top.

The box top they chose: to become the premier business traveler’s carrier in Europe. It was a
decision that quickly helped them to direct their resources. It provided the foundation for an
investment strategy.

By telling his team to build an airline focused on business travelers, he made it easier for them
to decide quickly which pieces to work with and which to ignore. Investment decisions got simpler by limiting options. The management team members eliminated large costs from their business by simply asking whether such costs would help business travelers choose their airline. The decision to spend $2 million on food and drink carts to improve the experience of business travelers was an easy and automatic yes.


Great leadership has always been a blend of precision and vision. Setting the box top creates the overarching vision, but how precise do you want to get? This is tricky. If you tell people how to assemble a puzzle, the assembly usually slows.
We have tested this. Consistently, the more a manager tells a team the right way to assemble puzzles, the slower it gets. You don’t want to get precise about how someone assembles a puzzle.
You do want to get precise about how the puzzle box top will look. Apply this principle to your business’s box top.

Start by attaching success criteria to the goals. Hawkins used that block of wood as a metric. Any features that exceeded that size would be unacceptable. Carlzon simply told his team that any projects that appealed to non-business travelers were outside the box top. How the experts
in Palm and SAS accomplished their tasks was not the leader’s issue. The leader’s role was to ensure that the accomplishments fit in that box top.

When your company isn’t under the pressure it has today, your team has plenty of time to evaluate ideas and do cost-benefit analysis. In a rapidly growing business, it hurts to invest in something outside the box top. A week off now and then is a big deal when your business is stretched. No matter how attractive each idea may be, you need to drop those that don’t fit. You don’t have enough time, people or money to chase each alternative.

Using box tops helped Hawkins and Carlzon to improve the culture of these companies. Are there issues in your business that take up meetings and pull people off more important projects? At SAS, Carlzon cleared a decision that had taken too much time and energy for five years. Getting to a decision quickly doesn’t just save the resources for that decision. If done often enough, it has the potential to change the tone of your business so that it emphasizes speed and responsiveness.

If your team is assembling a puzzle with a time limit and real penalties for being late, the team
should have little patience for any extra pieces. Time limits and penalties happen in your business, too, and you should have little patience for wasted resources. If you can eliminate unnecessary decisions and speed up the remainder, you will add sanity to you and your business.

The more pressure your organization endures, the more dependent you are on how well you and those near you can make decisions. As a leader, you can tell people what pieces matter, and what box top they should emulate. Playing with puzzles can help you extend your leadership to accomplish more in less time.