High Wire Dancing: Puzzles and Mysteries

I was preparing for some work with a group of church leaders a few weeks ago and came across this post from Tim Kastelle Are You Solving a Puzzle or a Mystery?

Puzzles are attractive because, as Gladwell points out, they come to clean conclusions. Ironically, by these definitions, all of the Agatha Christie books are puzzles, not mysteries – they can always be solved if you just pay attention to the right information, which is all there for you.

We are strongly drawn to puzzles because of how clear-cut they are.

Unfortunately, many of the big problems that we face are not puzzles, but rather mysteries. Mysteries are messy, and the methods that solve puzzles don’t work for mysteries, and they might actually make them worse.


Cynefin framework


It’s another way of talking about which domain of the Cynefin framework we are working in. Complicated or simple are the domain of puzzles. It’s about analyzing or categorizing and responding. Working in complexity is more like solving a mystery: things only make sense in hindsight. It’s about probing (trying things out), sensing – what is happening, and responding – stop what you are doing, try more of it, adjust it, iterate. And like Tim quotes from Malcolm Gladwell, “Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.” Reminds me of a Chris Corrigan saying “there’s no finish line in community work”.

The church leaders are on a transformation journey, attempting to build the road as they walk it. To create a future of spiritual communities that are alive, thriving, vital and sustainable. This means congregations as they know them today might be very different in how spiritual community looks like in the future. This is a mystery – there is no playbook, no amount of data or analysis will point to the answer. There is no neat and tidy strategic plan that will accomplish this.

My friend Jeff DeCagna contrasts this difference between strategic planning (which often assumes that after finding all the right data one can determine the right puzzle pieces to focus on for the next five years) and strategic learning. 

So instead of a strategic plan, what we sometimes need is a portfolio of experiments that will move us into our next round of action and learning work.

There is some relief that can come when we acknowledge we are in the territory of mystery, not the territory of puzzles. But it is a temporary relief, as what also comes with the territory is sitting in the swamp of uncertainty for often-prolonged periods of time. There is no picture on the box to guide you as you sort through the puzzle pieces. Stay together, persevere, fail together, learn together as you create the new.

Life is just one big experiment and so are all our efforts and great intentions to impact our world for good. If the solutions to problems—personal and global— were known, they wouldn’t be problems now. Even though this logic seems rather obvious, it’s strange how so many people keep applying old methods and old thinking to these issues, even as they keep failing. It seems we’d rather keep exhausting ourselves with failure than change our minds and admit that new ideas are needed.

Presence is the only way to walk the edge of chaos. We have to be as nimble and awake as a high-wire artist, sensitive to the slightest shift of wind, circumstances, emotions. We may find this high-wire exhausting at first, but there comes a time when we rejoice in our skillfulness. We learn to know this edge, to keep our balance, and even dance a bit at incalculable heights.~ Margaret Wheatley, Perseverance

 freddy_nock_corvatsch_-10 Thomas Tschanz via Compfight