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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