The 9-dot puzzle has been around for a while now, so maybe you’ve seen it. It’s a permanent resident of my conflict resolution activities toolbox. Here’s what it is and how I use it in conflict resolution to help clients problem-solve more creatively (as well as a Part 2 of the exercise that may be new to you).
9-dot exercise instructions, part 1
- Draw 9 dots to form a square, 3 rows of 3 evenly spaced dots each, just like the example above.
- Next, without lifting your pen off the paper, connect all the dots with 4 straight lines.
That’s it. Go ahead and work on it if you haven’t seen this one before; I’ll wait.
When you’re done, you can check your solution against the one I’ve posted here. There’s another solution I see now and then that you can google (do it later) to find out.
9-dot exercise instructions, part 2
- Draw 9 dots in the same configuration described above.
- Next, without lifting your pen off the paper, connect all the dots with 1 straight line. Yes, you read that right.
Go ahead and work on it for a few minutes. Challenge yourself. Don’t just give in to the temptation to turn to someone near you for help.
Need a hint? Well, ok, if you really tried and are still stuck, I’ll give you not one, but two hints:
- Most people cannot solve Part 2 with the same approach they used to figure out the solution to Part 1 (unless they cheated and googled it).
- To thwart the Einstellung effect in problem-solving, put down your pen, look at the puzzle, and say to yourself, “Don’t be blind!”
Comments about Part 1 of the exercise
Many people struggle with Part 1 of the exercise but they keep at it for a while. Some figure it out, many give up. If they’ve truly never run into the puzzle before, and don’t know the “trick” to solving it, they will sometimes throw up their hands and accuse me of giving them an unsolvable task.
The “trick,” of course, is that you have to think outside box — quite literally — to be able to connect the dots with four straight lines without lifting your pen off the paper. And many adults self-impose a rule I haven’t imposed — they assume the lines may not extend beyond the boundary formed by the 8 dots along the outside of the square.
If I allow people to work on the puzzle together, more figure it out than when they work on it alone. I eavesdrop on their conversation, of course, and notice that once they have a companion in crime, they stick with it a bit longer and push each other to think in new ways.
I’ve heard it said that children can solve this puzzle more quickly than adults because they don’t add the rule that adults, succumbing to self-imposed limitations, do. I don’t know if this is true and haven’t found a reliable source of data on this. It feels true and I suppose that’s why this comment shows up so often.
Comments about Part 2 of the exercise
When I give the instructions for Part 2, there is usually an audible groan. Sometimes pens get tossed onto the table in utter defeat, before any attempt is made at all. Accusatory glances come my way (“Why are you torturing us, Tammy?”).
That’s when I’ll provide the two hints described above. And every single time, creative things begin to happen. Before long, solutions start showing up. At that point, I like to add in, “I know of at least six solutions.” People get downright jubilant as they come up with additional solutions to the first one.
That’s good. I’d much rather leave them happy than irritated with me.
How I use this exercise in conflict resolution
The use in conflict resolution courses and training is obvious. It’s a terrific exercise for starting conversation about collaborative problem-solving, boosting creativity, and avoiding self-imposed cognitive traps.
What’s that, you say?
Oh dear. I didn’t share the six solutions I’ve seen to Part 2. I wanted you to try to figure it out first. Have you done that?
Ok, then, here you go (click on any photo to open the gallery of larger images):