I received a puzzle for Christmas that featured a collage of campaign buttons. Given all the words on buttons and distinctive colors and type, I thought it would be a fairly simple venture to complete. I was wrong.

To begin with, I underestimated the time that it takes just to lay 1000 pieces out on the table and sort out the edge pieces. I did not count on the background between the buttons that was the same throughout, making it difficult to know where in the frame it belonged. Nor did I account for the fact the pieces were sadistically cut, splicing letters and faces in awkward splits so that they were indistinguishable even under close examination. In short, it took forever to complete.

It reminded me of change efforts overall, and in most cases we don’t even start out with all the pieces. We think we know what the vision is or what the end result will look like, but never allocate as much time as it requires to get there. We have the false impression that parts of the quest will be simple, and don’t factor in that the final product looks easy, but assembling it never is. We focus on the whole, and gloss over the intricate details that tend to trip us up. And we neglect to keep the dog from eating the piece that falls on the floor, confounding us time and time again as we become sure that the piece we can’t find is the piece that was mauled.

The next time you or your organization is about to embark on a major change effort, have your team put together a thousand-piece puzzle first, then reflect on what lessons you learned from the exercise that can inform your timing and expectations for the real-life puzzle you’re about to attempt. It makes sense to start with the vision and assemble the boundaries first, but the middle section is not a linear process. In the end, puzzles and change efforts look easy, but getting there happens a piece at a time.

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