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Human puzzle

Yesterday, my work colleagues and I trekked to downtown Seattle for a team-building exercise called “Puzzle Break.” After arriving at street level, we were led down a long-unused car ramp and into a dimly-lit conference space. An enthusiastic staff member then prebriefed us on the experience to come. We would be locked in a room chock-full of clues, and we’d have one hour to solve the puzzles and (hopefully) find our way out.

We entered the puzzle room, the clock started counting down, and we scoured the space for clues. Every cranny and cupboard hid seemingly-unrelated items: slips of paper, stuffed animals, knickknacks. But as we laid them side-by-side, we realized that some items belonged with others. Smaller groups splintered off to solve these individual puzzles, and each small victory eventually contributed to our overall progress.

Of course, the real point of games like this isn’t the game itself, but the group dynamics that emerge in that context. Corporate culture frequently demands that employees become “leaders” to advance in their careers. That expectation bleeds into an unstructured event like this. What if multiple team members try to assume that “leader” mantle? Who backs off? I’m always fascinated to see who emerges as a “general,” who embraces the “footsoldier” role, and who wanders around cluelessly.

I was definitely a clueless wanderer. While I wanted to contribute, I just wasn’t sure how. I flitted back and forth between puzzles, looking over my teammates’ shoulders timidly. I hadn’t met these colleagues until a few hours earlier, and I felt self-conscious about inserting myself into their well-worn patterns of cooperation.

A more outgoing, energetic personality probably would have overcome such hurdles. For my part, I hoped that others wouldn’t notice my limited involvement. When I had something to add, I piped up. When someone asked for my help, I pitched in. Mostly, though, I watched quietly and scoured the room for clues that others might have missed.

We didn’t escape from “Puzzle Break.” In fact, we weren’t even close, despite the staff’s positive debrief afterwards. Consensus among our team was that we would have needed at least another half hour to finish the puzzles and get out. But we weren’t too discouraged; apparently less than 20% of teams escape this particular room. And, chances are, they had their nervous wallflowers, too.