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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Finding that 'one in a million' solution, March 2, 2007, 7E.

Have you caught on to the Sudoku craze?  Sudoku is like a crossword puzzle that uses numbers.  Each puzzle is solved by figuring out the one particular combination of numbers that complete a grid so that every row, column, and three by three sub-grid contains the numbers one through nine.  There is only one solution to each puzzle.

Likewise, crossword puzzles are constructed so that each clue has one and only one solution.  Because the crossword puzzle squares can include letters in multiple words going across rows and down columns, the answers must be exactly what the puzzle author intended or the puzzle will not be solved.

Sudoku and crossword puzzles are challenging because they require people to find the “one” solution from a very large number of possible solutions.  The type of thinking required to boil down a large list of possible solutions to the one correct solution is known as convergent thinking.  For organizations, having people with strong convergent thinking skills can be an asset.  Being able to disregard many incorrect alternatives while seeking out the one correct solution is sometimes a necessary skill.

At other times, it may be beneficial to have people who can be divergent, rather than convergent, in their thinking.  Divergent thinking is the ability to see many alternatives for a single problem.  When confronted with a problem or issue, divergent thinkers are able to envision a wide range of diverse and possible solutions.  Convergent and divergent thinking can be pictured using the image of a funnel.  Convergent thinking is analogous to moving from the big end to the small end of the funnel—all of the possible solutions come down to the one correct solution.  Divergent thinking can be thought of as the opposite.  It runs from the small end to the big end of the funnel—the single problem expands up to many possible solutions.

Divergent thinking is a key component of creativity.  Creative problem solving typically involves developing a large list of possible solutions to a problem.  Creativity involves making mental connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, overcoming stereotypes and commitments to past ways of doing and thinking about things, and breaking down falsely erected barriers to problem definitions and possible solutions.  Divergent and creative thinking requires considerable mental energy and effort.  Without a desire to look harder, dig deeper, and explore further, individuals will not be creative in their thinking.  Likewise, organizational cultures that do not encourage and promote creative thinking will be limited in their solutions and accomplishments.

Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”  That principle holds particularly true for organizations.  To find a “one in a million” solution, organizations might have to generate “one million minus one” other solutions.  Divergent thinking can be a source of competitive advantage.  By engaging in and encouraging divergent and creative thinking, organizations can solve problems with solutions that are overlooked or never imagined of by competitors who do not foster creativity and innovation.  

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