Problem or puzzle – the choice is yours


Coral Levett tries out a different way of viewing workplace ‘problems’.

Does anybody else out there like a good puzzle? I love them. I just can’t get enough of them. Pretty much any sort of puzzle will do – Sudoku, crosswords, jigsaws, wordfinds, Scrabble, Scramble, number puzzles – there’s no limit.

I have recently been convinced to try to solve my work-related problems, issues, tasks and projects as ‘puzzles’.  Instantly, they become much less onerous and easier to approach.  It’s like magic. Yesterday’s problem becomes today’s puzzle. Like all puzzles, they simply become something to solve and something to share with others. Some puzzles take longer than others to complete or work through, but it can completely change the way to think about problems in the workplace (and at home, for that matter).

Coral Levett.

The use of the term ‘puzzle’ in this context is a term associated with practice development and was introduced in recent times by a number of nursing practice developers led by professor Ken Walsh, while he was with the University of Wollongong. The concept was developed in order to change the focus from ‘solution searching’ for problems to identifying the heart of a matter around which people want to engage (Walsh et al 2006 & 2008).

The term ‘puzzle’ not only suggests that a more cooperative effort is required, but is useful for its ability to remove the need for blame or failure to be part of the process. It can be said that if a problem exists, there is sometimes the implication that somebody must have caused it. We then lose valuable time and energy articulating and allocating blame to the appropriate person or system that caused the problem. Not so with puzzles. Have you ever heard anyone say ‘who caused this puzzle in the first place?’ I doubt it.

All too often, particularly for those working in nursing or midwifery management, we see work-based problems as ours to find solutions for and to fix.  The problem-based approach often results in an issue not being fully explored and understood before an attempt is made at generating solutions. When we can’t find a quick solution to a problem, we often blame ourselves or others and feel miserable for our efforts.

Puzzles are not like that. They can be explored for different ways of viewing the puzzle and are perfect for engaging the support or assistance of others who have an interest in the subject matter. When a problem is viewed as a puzzle, it takes on a whole new light. It takes on the flavour of a challenge – something to be stimulated by. It might even be exciting.  Perhaps the best thing about a puzzle is that it is nobody’s fault!  We don’t have to lose time worrying about who caused the puzzle in the first place.

Like all puzzles, when you are struggling to get to a satisfactory end point, you might need to rearrange the pieces and have another go. Simply by asking for another’s opinion, a different solution might become evident. The language alone serves to alter the mind’s way of viewing the situation. Where ‘problem’ is a word with negative connotations, ‘puzzle’ offers no such negativity, instead conjuring up a visual image of something that invites curiosity, is challenging and fun.

Walsh and his colleagues particularly focused their work on puzzling in the clinical nursing practice context. They were able to develop workable strategies that enabled individual clinicians and teams to explore and find workable solutions to practice issues. Much of their work was achieved by reframing the language around the problem or the practice area to be improved. For the sceptics who say this is just an exercise in semantics, there is much support in the research around the important of language in shaping our reality.  Cognitive therapists, for example, have established that there is a relationship between anxiety and depression and the use of negative language. Conversely, the use of positive language might also let us view the puzzle differently. At the very least, it implies that a creative and innovative pursuit of the issue is possible. It also allows a certain freedom to be more imaginative in finding solutions.

So next time you’re faced with a difficult problem at work, picture it (and think of it) as a puzzle to be creatively solved. If you’re not that into puzzles, then see who around you is. Your colleagues are more likely to want to help you solve a puzzle than get caught up in ‘a problem’.

References: Walsh, K, Duke, J, Foureur, M & McDonald, L (2006), The DEEP: Designing an Effective Evaluation Plan, Nursing Research & Development Unit, Waikato District Health Board & Victoria University of Wellington.

Walsh, K, Moss, C, Lawless, J, McKelvie, R & Duncan, L (2008), Puzzling Practice: A Strategy for Working with Clinical Practice Issues, International Journal of Nursing Practice, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 94-100.

This article was first published in the Australian Nursing Journal in August 2011.


  1. Thanks, Coral for a great new way of looking at ‘problems’ I agree many colleagues would be far more willing to work out a ‘puzzle’ collaboratively, than a ‘problem’.


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