Clustering Clusters

My kids are of the jiggle puzzle age. Huge puzzles. Miniature puzzles. Easy puzzles. Near-impossible puzzles. We've got got boxes and ziplock baggies full of puzzles...some even have all the pieces!

I enjoy watching their different strategies. Separate out all the edges. Hunt for the corners. Sort by the blue sky...the red bricks...the purple flower.

Sometimes my kids even agree to work on a single puzzle together!

Last week, I watched as two (2) of my kids struggled together with one (1) such puzzle. They had each proudly assembled sizable chunks of pieces into discernible sections of the image. They were each individually hunting for more pieces to connect to their clusters...

What they hadn't yet realized was that each of their chunks were ready to be connected to each other.

What I saw next was both excitement and selfishness. Excited to see that they, together, were closer to completing the mission. Selfish in that they had each been working separately on their own little part, and had now lost that sole-ownership.

Over the past week in my police detective office, I used this new analogy of connecting puzzle clusters more than a half-dozen times. (I'd expect a few eyerolls from those in earshot of my desk phone..."Uh oh, the puzzle story again.") It was in the context of information sharing and needing to find connections between separate criminal intelligence projects. (I also found it somewhat pleasing that in Social Network Analysis, we call connections edges - as can be said of the notched edges of puzzle pieces.)

One (1) significant difference in my kids' puzzles and criminal patterns are in the completeness and stability. Our detectives and analysts work with incomplete data, shifting trends, missing clues, unknowns, and unknowables. But that's not to say there are not clues to be related, inferred, assumed, or clustered.

It's through dynamic teaming and sustained collaboration that we can make these hard-to-find connections in the pursuit of better understanding our situations, challenges, and opportunities. And yes, it requires us to relinquish some of that pride and ownership along the way.

Admittedly, jigsaw puzzles are finite games. They are objective, closed-loop systems. In Cynefin framework terms, they fall in the ordered domains. And maybe most differently, we don't have box covers as a depiction of what we are supposed to be seeing in our finished work!

However, despite these differences, I still believe puzzle analogies have usefulness in teaching complexity thinking. Pieces are dots. They connect. They cluster. They form patterns. Pieces can go missing. Pieces can be mixed in with other puzzles. Others have pieces that you need; you have pieces others need.

As with any analogy, it can be taken too far. Let's find those lessons and acknowledge their limits. We must continue to help our teams, our organizations, our children, our athletes better understand how to work together in uncertainty. And there is no better way than through imagery, games, and storytelling.

This is a big picture world. We must do what we can to cluster the clusters if we are serious about making sense of what's around us.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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