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Sudoku Puzzle

The Sudoku Connection

YPI Yacht Crew

On a trip to see a client several years ago, I found myself sitting in the airport waiting for my very delayed flight to board.  As I sat at the gate, I noticed that there were quite a few other passengers waiting as well, but many of them had one other thing in common.  Many of them were doing Sudoku.  It was then I began to think about the metaphorical relationship between Sudoku and knowing what to do, and why to do it.

Trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle is very similar to what many crew are up against onboard today.  In Sudoku, you know what needs to be done; as crew, you should know what needs to be done.  In Sudoku, you know what you have to work with; as crew, you should know what resources you will have at your disposal when you begin to tackle a problem.  In Sudoku, you know the parameters of how the puzzle goes together; as crew you should know the parameters of coming up with a good solution to the challenge of having happy guests.  On the surface, one might assume that anyone who can do the Sudoku puzzle should be able to solve decision-making challenges just as easily.  This often is not the case.

Part of the challenge of Sudoku is that you need to be logical in your thinking when you attempt to solve the puzzle.  Onboard, or in port, sometimes solving problems means you need to look for the counter-intuitive solution, which may not be the logical approach at all.   It should represent common sense, but it just may not represent a logical approach.

People who are able to solve Sudoku puzzles are able to ‘see’ how the numbers all go together across both the horizontal and vertical span of the puzzle, as well as in each individual group of nine cells.  As crew, this can often be difficult as boat needs and guest needs can often be nautical miles apart.  With this potential gap in understanding, and a corresponding gap in actions, the ability to see how all the pieces of your decision-making puzzle interact will be reduced greatly.

In Sudoku, you always know which numbers you have to work with…each ‘cell’ utilises one of the numbers 1 through 9.  With this knowledge, theoretically, you would be able to keep trying various combinations over time and eventually win.  However, as crew, the resources you are able to work with can often vary greatly. To make things even worse, there are quite a few examples as crew where the resources that are needed are sometimes unavailable for one reason or another.

In Sudoku, you have all the time you want to devote to the puzzle.  You can have at it in one go, or you can do a bit, put it down, and pick it up again whenever you feel the urge.  However, as crew, ‘all the time in the world’ is a luxury that very few crew members can even dream about.  Working onboard is all about deadlines and departure times, and just because you are ‘stuck’ on solving part of your decision-making puzzle doesn’t mean you can stop working on it until you decide you want to.  No, decisions have to be made, and have to be made right.  This also means that you can’t get away with saying ‘oops’ when you make a mistake.

Sudoku actually can provide some powerful lessons for business decision-makers.

  1. Understand what you are up against before you begin. In the Sudoku puzzle, the challenge is to fill in all the boxes with the right numbers.  As crew, you need to find out what, if you achieve it, success will look like so you can figure out how to ensure you can achieve it.
  2. Find out what the parameters are for the decision you have been told to sort out. In Sudoku, one of the big parameters is that you cannot end up with duplicate numbers in any row or column.  What are the parameters you have to work with in addressing your crew?  If you don’t know, go ask someone who does.  What are the explicit and implicit communications rules onboard?
  3. Don’t attempt to do the impossible to begin with. I have noticed that even Sudoku puzzles come in differing degrees of difficulty, and for someone who wouldn’t be considered an expert, an ‘expert’ level puzzle could result in frustration and failure.  As crew, it would be ludicrous to attempt something that, based on your skills and willingness to learn, is desperately difficult.  If you aren’t given a choice of what to attempt to achieve, then make sure you have some help from people who have the experience and skills (and you can learn from).

Solving a Sudoku puzzle and the puzzle of knowing how to do the right thing onboard, at the right time, for the right reasons, do have a lot in common.  Both puzzles can be emotionally challenging, mentally challenging, and at the same time, quite rewarding when you get it right.

By Dr James B Rieley



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