The Difference Between a Puzzle and a Problem

Posted by Nico Viljoen on 29 November 2017.

Nico Viljoen

MBA, Hons BCompt, HDip Tax (Jefferson School of Law USA), HED, AGA(SA) DBA Graduate Student, Business School Netherlands

The Tax Shop Head Office

More about Nico Viljoen

Nico obtained qualifications from various academic institutions and currently studies towards the DBA at the Business School Netherlands. He is an associate member of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants. After completion of his articles with PWC, he lectured in the fields of taxation, accounting and auditing at the Vaal University of Technology. Thereafter, he occupied financial executive positions in the heavy engineering, chemical, transport and automotive industry. Nico has owned and managed various successful businesses over the 20 years. Nico has been a business mentor for various organisation and serves as an external moderator for taxation and internal auditing.
However, when faced with a problem, it is often difficult to visualize the outcome.  In fact, the result could be very different from what one anticipates or expects.  One may be presented with a challenge or a series of obstacles and have absolutely no idea how things will turn out.  When one doesn’t have clarity of vision, it is difficult to determine the steps that are required to overcome the challenge.  Without a clear step-by-step plan, the actions may lead to additional roadblocks.  Moving forward doesn’t guarantee success.  While visualizing, the outcome may be challenging and frustrating, it is important to embrace the experience as an opportunity for growth.
Another major difference between a puzzle and a problem is the approach that is used to find a solution.  When putting together a puzzle one is given the big picture and one has a very good idea how the pieces fit together.  By counting the number of puzzle pieces, one knows right away if one has everything one needs to finish the puzzle.  With a puzzle, one has numerous pieces that one must unify.  Good concentration and memory will enable one to join complementary pieces of the puzzle.  
To complete a complex puzzle, one may need to exert more mental energy and keep working at it until it is done.  One may be able to identify the problem, but may have trouble understanding how everything fits together.  One may not even know if one has all the information one needs to find a solution.  With a problem one has one thing that one must dissect to discover a solution.  The ability to break the problem into smaller parts will enable one to see more.
Finally, there is a significant difference between the results of a puzzle and the results of a problem.  Individuals who are adept at completing puzzles realize that there is one and only one outcome of the puzzle.  They know that puzzle pieces have specific sizes and shapes and that they cannot force a puzzle piece into a spot where it doesn’t belong.  Thus, they know exactly what to expect and they are not surprised by the outcome.  
Conversely, effective problem solvers realize that there are many possible outcomes for a given scenario.  They may anticipate one outcome and find that weighing options and analysing alternatives yields numerous viable solutions.  Since they had no preconceived notion or specified outcome, they are presented with a variety of options that meet their needs.
Puzzles are clear, predetermined, and yield one result. Problems can be ambiguous, evolving, and have multiple outcomes.