On crosswords and collaboration - Christmas Puzzles 1

This is the first of three posts on work-related thoughts I had whilst puzzling at Christmas time. "Royal couple make love, nine letters", says me, reading out 7 across to Mrs F.

My wife and I do cryptic crosswords. We have been churning through 3-4 a week for a few years now. We are not your 10,000-hour experts but, with enough time, we can finish most we put our minds to. We work together; and do better because we do. Reflecting over Christmas, it struck me that we have three levels of interaction…

  1. I get some clues: my wife gets others. A straightforward sharing of labour that doesn't need much interaction. (Although I do get in trouble if I don't tick the clues I've solved.)
  2. We have complementary abilities. I seem to be good at identifying the structure of clues; for example I can usually spot when there is an anagram involved and the words in the clue that comprise the anagram. My wife can has the (often astonishing) ability to look at a group of letters and see the anagram in them.
  3. When neither of us has a clue about a clue, we often brainstorm ideas about it. Sometimes the interaction starts a chain of sparks that results in a new understanding of a clue that enables us to solve it. This doesn't happen very often, a few times a week maybe but, when we are really stuck, it makes the difference between cracking a crossword and not.

This third level is what I think of as genuine collaboration. It cannot be forced; we can revisit a clue loads of times and get nothing. Answers often seem to come from the subconscious: we both have to be in the right state of mind. We do have to listen carefully to each other, and not ignore what sounds like gibberish. Although interactions often take just a few seconds, there is often a delay, sometimes of hours, before an answer pops out (or not).

This is not at all a linear process, it's haphazard, it's not controllable and it often ends in failure; but, in an odd sort of way, it's quite reliable. Often, it's the only way to get to a result. And it feels great when it happens.

And so it is with solving puzzles at work.

"PHILANDER!" responds Mrs F.

[Clue by Gordius in the Guardian]


The posts in this Christmas Puzzle series

  1. On crosswords and collaboration
  2. On jigsaw puzzles and emergent working
  3. On fiddling with things and getting in knots