3,000 Piece Puzzle: A Lesson in Complexity


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We just returned from a wonderful week skiing. One of our family traditions is to all work together completing a puzzle. It’s a fun activity that involves a surprising amount of teamwork, such as finding pieces that belong in a part of the puzzle someone else is working on and trading off working on different areas.

We had always picked 1,000 piece puzzles. This time we wound up buying a 3,000 piece puzzle. After all, how much harder could it be? Well, a lot harder as it turns out. As a rough approximation nearly 10x as hard!

Here is the puzzle in a semi-finished state. That’s as far as we got before the vacation ended, despite spending quite a bit of collective time on it.

There is a good business and life lesson in this. As you add more parts a problem, the complexity tends to grow explosively. Here are some strategies to combat this problem in business:

Whenever you add a feature, consider removing one that’s used by only a small fraction of users (important caveat: if you have 100x consumers to producers on your service you need to do this analysis separately for each group!)

As you hire employees make sure they are organized into logical units that can work as independently from each other as possible  (doing the 1,000 piece puzzles is 3x a 1,000 piece puzzle).

Architect your software so that component services are loosely coupled via APIs.

What’s your favorite strategy for avoiding growth in complexity in business and/or in life?