Collecting puzzle pieces

The COO's superpower

Imagine you have a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle. It consists of lines (some straight, some curved) and some areas of solid pinkish colour. You can guess at what the piece represents: The petal of a flower? The tip of a man’s nose? A sweet within a bowl? The guesses are unlikely to be right, though. You simply don’t have enough information.

Then you collect another puzzle piece and you learn a little more. It contains part of something round and black, part of a car’s wheel perhaps? And another piece: three vertical stripes on a white background.

And so on. Each piece of the puzzle gives you a bit more information, allowing you to learn a bit more about the bigger picture.

That collecting more pieces of a puzzle allows you to learn more about the overall picture is self-evident. What may be less immediately apparent is that each new piece of a puzzle allows you to know more about the other pieces you have. This is true even when you have too few pieces to be able to describe the overall scene.

With one piece you only have colour and shape. With three you may know that the scene is some sort of cartoon illustration. With five or six you know it is a picture of Mickey Mouse, and that the round black thing is part of his ear. But wait! The next puzzle piece reveals Minnie’s eyelashes. That means that pink puzzle piece you picked up first is part of Minnie’s bow!

And so on.

This is a newsletter about being a COO, right?


I’m getting there.

Moving from a functional leadership role (such as Head of Engineering) into a cross-functional general management role such as COO is daunting. Suddenly, you have functional leaders reporting to you and expecting you to guide and lead them. How to do that though? You will never know as much about design as your Head of Design, nor as much about marketing as your Head of Marketing. What could you offer these people?

Talk about Impostor Syndrome.

The general manager benefits from having a great deal of context, and from having a lot of visibility right across the organisation. Using the analogy above, the COO has a hoard of puzzle pieces unmatched by anybody else in the organisation.

Of course this provides access to The Bigger Picture. Everybody knows that, and it is profoundly useful. One thing a COO can do for their direct reports is to share context and insight from across the company. This is certainly valuable, and if as a COO you are not doing that then you’re probably not doing much of anything.

There’s a lot more value you can add, though.

Each puzzle piece teaches you about the others

Remember: each new piece of a puzzle allows you to know more about the other pieces you have. As a COO, you have a lot of puzzle pieces. These puzzle pieces teach you about each other, and allow you to learn things that those in possession of fewer pieces may not be able to learn directly.

For example:

I will never know as much about the craft Product Design as my Head of Design, but I know more than them about Engineering. This knowledge teaches me things about how Design needs to function in order to produce designs that can be efficiently implemented by engineering.

I will never know as much about marketing as my Head of Marketing, but I know more than them about how investors view our business fundamentals. And knowing this teaches me things about marketing that the Head of Marketing cannot directly learn.

Every piece of the puzzle I collect teaches me new things about all the other pieces. This makes my relationship with my direct reports very exciting: I can learn from them, and they can learn from me. And the more I learn from them, the more I can teach the rest of my team. It’s a kind of virtuous cycle.

This reinforces to me one of the key things you must do as a COO: keep collecting those puzzle pieces. Every time I learn about something new, not only do I see more of the big picture, but I become a better leader and manager for my team.

I still feel that impostor syndrome. But as I collect the puzzle pieces, I start to see the particular and valuable role I can play in helping the individuals on my team to grow.