The Nine-Dot Puzzle and Unnecessary Limitations

In any endeavor you attempt, there are always limitations. Sometimes there are the limitations of the context and circumstances, sometimes of the actors. But there are always limitations. Which isn’t always a bad thing. Limitations set boundaries, define the terms of engagement, and can actually promote creativity.

What I find interesting about limitations, however, is how often we set them without even knowing it. And often these kinds of limitations are artificial, at best, and often both unnecessary and unhelpful. This kind of limitation is not likely to be productive because it prematurely closes down possibilities and restricts our vision.

When I talk about this with leaders, I often use the example of the nine-dot puzzle. You may already be familiar with it, but if not it’s pretty simple. (In fact, if you’ve got paper and a pen near you, you can try it out right now.) You make a grid of three rows of three dots each and ask try to connect all the dots by drawing only four straight lines that are connected (that is, drawing the lines without lifting pen from paper).

If you’re anything like me, the first time you try this puzzle you’ll try several different ways to connect all the dots, not be successful, and then begin to wonder whether the test is really to see how long people will keep trying an impossible task before discovering it’s impossible. J (A typical, failed attempt, is show below.)






Except that it’s not impossible. The key to solving the nine-dot puzzle is to refuse to see the outer line of dots as a boundary. This allows you draw above and beyond the rows and connect all four quite easily. (Like in the figure below.)









What’s interesting is how few people think of that. Why? After all, no one said you couldn’t draw outside the lines – or, literally, outside the box. So what makes us do it anyway?

Well, by evolutionary design we are trained to see patterns, and part of seeing patterns is detecting boundaries. Much of the time, this is really valuable. Except when you’re trying to sole problems or see possibilities and suddenly those self-imposed but entirely artificial boundaries just aren’t helpful anymore.

I suspect that many of us do this same kind of thing in our roles as leaders – whether in business, the church, or our community. We assume there are limits and thereby restrict the possibilities we see by conforming to artificial boundaries. And I suspect many of us do this in our relationships, too, defining the possibilities ahead of time and not seeing the potential in ourselves or the people around us. How do we get around that?

I saw a documentary on the life of Steve Jobs a few years ago. At one point Jobs said that his whole life changed when he realized that the “reality” he lived in had been created by people no smarter than he was. That realization gave him permission to “poke reality,” testing to see which boundaries were real and which were simply conventional.

That’s something we might try, as well. Testing the reality presented to us to determine whether the limits we see are actual or artificial, helpful or a hindrance. Can your church really not grow, whether in numbers of generosity? Can you child really not improve his behavior, even if you chang yours? Is a relationship with a loved one really limited by past mistake? (Maybe, but don’t draw that conclusion and impose that boundary too quickly.) Can you really not find meaningful work, even if you redefined your sense of “work” – or “meaningful” – in the first place?

There are boundaries all around us. Some are real; some are helpful; and some aren’t either. And you’ll never know which is which until you poke them to see if they bend.