Ever see that mind puzzle called the 9 Dots? You start with 3 rows of 3 dots, and the goal is to connect all 9 dots with 4 straight lines. Oh, and once you start, you can’t lift your pen off of the paper – the ‘end’ of each line must be the ‘start’ of the next.

Here’s the puzzle. Go ahead and give it a try.


(There’s a link to the solution, below, but don’t go there just yet – try to figure it out on your own.)

Knowing and Not-Knowing

The point of the game is simple enough: As Salvador Dali once said, “It is either easy or impossible.”

In other words, until you know HOW to do something (e.g. connect the dots correctly), you don’t.  But once you DO…you absolutely do!

And by virtue of you being in a leadership role, chances are pretty good that you already know how to connect some dots that your staff does not.

Struggling versus Puzzling

Of course that doesn’t mean you should always just give them the answer. No fun in that! (And not much growth and development for them, either.) But, with a few well-placed ‘hints’ you can certainly help them figure things out for themselves sooner.

After all, isn’t making good things happen ‘sooner’, pretty much the whole point of leadership?!

There’s Significant Power in a Good Hint

Sure, the 9 Dots it’s just a silly puzzle, but using it as our metaphor du jour, what would be a good hint that might help someone solve it sooner, rather than later, rather than never? Here are two:

  1. It’s okay if the lines don’t stay ‘within’ the dots.
  2. It’s okay if some of the lines cross each other.

If you couldn’t solve the puzzle before, give it another go. I’ll wait.

The Broader Context

By challenging staff to figure things out (and being there to provide a few hints, when necessary) you’re helping your direct reports – and your department as a whole – to get more done sooner AND helping them all to learn and grow in ways that they might not otherwise.

And that’s a GOOD thing.

Said another way, if you’re NOT helping your direct reports and staff get more done sooner, then you’re probably not challenging them enough.

What ‘Dots’ are ‘Impossible’ for THEM?

So what ‘dots’ don’t they know how to connect?

  • Is it how a new assignment affects the company’s bottom line?
  • Is it how to integrate a project’s goal into the team’s other priorities?
  • Is it how to reduce line-item expenses without jeopardizing essential services?
  • Is it how to have an employee performance discussion in a way that the employee feels respected and cared about?
  • Is it how to ask better follow-up questions the clarify someone’s intent?
  • Is it how to follow-through on assignments that they don’t already know how to complete?
  • Is it how to manage conflict or disagreements more constructively?
  • Is it how to stay motivated even when they feel exhausted?

Take a moment to come up with some hints that might help them connect the dots.

Because once they know, they’ll know! And you’ll have helped them turn the seemingly impossible into something that’s relatively easy!


(Oh, and as promised: The 9 Dots answer.)

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