The five lessons of Sudoku to face complex problems


According to a study of 10,000 leaders where they were asked about the first quality of a leader for the success of their organization, 97% of them answered: strategic intelligence. However, as another study points out , whether it is a question of lack of time, commitment or knowledge, various reasons lead managers to abandon the work of their strategic thinking or even find themselves unable to master it.

In this article, we do not offer solutions to this problem. Rather, we invite you to take a more fun path to try to identify some strategic principles useful to leaders, but also to all in everyday life situations, professional as personal, in order to face complex problems.

For this, we can rely on a very famous game: Sudoku, whose players around the world have been orphaned since the disappearance of the Japanese Maki Kaji , on August 10, at the age of 69 years. In the 1980s, it was he who helped popularize the game, after having discovered it in an American magazine, by giving it its Japanese name (“Su”: number; and “Doku”: unique).

The publishing house he founded, Nikoli, paid tribute on its website to the “godfather of Sudoku” , “who spread the love of puzzles around the world”. If there are ancestors of Sudoku in Europe from the XVIII th  century, including the Latin square of the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, it will indeed wait nearly two centuries to see the first grids published in Japanese newspapers.

However, one can note a difference between the game and reality: the absence of uncertainty. With Sudoku, we understand a little better the possible difference between ignorance and uncertainty – too often confused when the complexity seems important. While ignorance requires strategy and learning, uncertainty involves a gamble. However, in Sudoku, there is nothing to bet because it is a game whose framework is fixed in advance and the problem can be solved.

If there was a lesson to be learned from this last point, it would be not to confuse ignorance with real uncertainty in solving a complex problem. If ignorance requires investigation and learning, uncertainty rather implies a sense of betting, risk taking and therefore playing your skin. To distinguish the two, one would undoubtedly realize that our fears in the face of complexity emerge much more often from our ignorance of which we are blind than from the real uncertainty which stems from a form of bet to which knowledge cannot. a lot .

Triple interdependence

The principle of Sudoku is as follows: you have a table of 81 boxes, divided into 9 columns, 9 rows and 9 blocks. The rule is as follows: you must complete each box with a number ranging from 1 to 9 while simultaneously respecting the following three constraints:

  • The number must not already be in the same column.
  • The number must not already be on the same line.
  • The number must not already be in the block.

In short, to position a figure, the complexity comes from the triple level of interdependence to which it is subject: column, row and block. With such a game, which confronts us with this triple interdependence, strategic intelligence, one of the 10 principles of complex thought that we detail in our latest book It’s complex! (Éditions Dunod), wins.

More precisely, five principles can be mobilized to successfully complete the grid of 9 boxes. Five principles which are all lessons for developing strategic intelligence.

Lesson n ° 1. Take the time to analyze your available knowledge, your possible ignorance and your real uncertainties.

A game of Sudoku does not start with an empty board. From the start, you have boxes already completed which constitute both a resource and a constraint; a resource because this is the knowledge from which you can continue to solve your problem and a constraint because it sets a framework and therefore limits your possibilities in filling in the boxes.

Thus, the first step is to take the time to take stock both of what you already know and therefore your available knowledge as well as what you do not know at this stage of the game. This operation, undoubtedly essential to start the game, will prove to be essential throughout the game: constantly taking the time to identify what you know and what you possibly don’t know.

In terms of strategy, this is an elementary lesson: in the face of complexity, to use the expression of the French philosopher Jacques Bouveresse , first of all subordinate your “desire to judge to the duty to understand”. Understand the situation, seek out the information and knowledge available, and be aware of the possible field of your ignorance that needs to be filled in to resolve your problem.

Lesson n ° 2. “Don’t think but rather watch!” “

This is a very common mistake that Sudoku enthusiasts know well: by focusing too much on the desire to place a number in a box, we forget to see the simple and obvious solutions! How easy it is to miss the ease when the mind is embarked on the will to solve a more complex problem …

Also, when we advance in the game, it happens that the solution we are looking for is already there, in front of our eyes: we absolutely want to place a 3 in a line when it is already there … In this regard, we One could recall this famous formula of the Austrian philosopher and mathematician Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Remarks (fragment 66): “Do not think but rather look! “.

In terms of strategy, this lesson, so trivial, is yet so easy to forget: by focusing too much on complex problems, we leave out the simplest to solve or, worse, we seek information or knowledge already available. However, this implies making the first lesson a sort of “reflex”: regularly taking the time to take stock of your available knowledge and possible ignorance.

Lesson n ° 3. Build your strategy along the way based on the information you have.

The kind of mistakes mentioned above can sometimes come from our willingness to follow a single strategy without questioning it. However, as Edgar Morin underlined in a chapter entitled “The intelligent qualities” of volume 3 of The Method , one of the bundles of human intelligence lies in “the ability to enrich, develop, modify the strategy according to information received and experience gained ”.

Along the way, the very notion of “strategy” will take on its full meaning: it is no longer a matter of a fixed program to be implemented but of an intelligence to be deployed. We can then better understand these words of the philosopher and sociologist at the origin of the concept of “complex thought”:

“Intelligence is always strategy, and, in its most individualized, the most complex, the most innovative exercises, this strategy becomes art, like any strategy which mobilizes the best of individual aptitudes in the face of uncertainties, difficulties, variability. of a mission to accomplish. Like any art, the art of intelligence cannot obey recipes or programs of realization ”.

Lesson n ° 4. Stay lucid on your own level to learn without giving up.

That being said, you don’t get into Sudoku starting with the highest level. This is the best way to give up quickly and lose the opportunity to learn how to play it. Indeed, here is a game which requires a strong dose of humility and lucidity as for its own level.

First of all, don’t be afraid to solve your complex problems with a pencil. As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard reminded us in The formation of the scientific mind  :

“Psychologically, no truth without rectified error. A psychology of objective attitude is a story of our personal mistakes ”.

So do not be afraid of error; rather, rest assured that they are the key to your learning and improving your strategies.

In addition, you will see that the higher the level of complexity of a Sudoku, the less information you have in the table to start with. This does not mean that the initial knowledge is less important or that we need to relativize lesson n ° 1. Rather, it shows us that the more you are able to put into perspective the importance of the knowledge available to deal with your ignorance, the more you will be able to deal with more complex problems.

Lesson n ° 5. Be careful and rigorous to avoid escalation of errors.

To humility, let’s add prudence and rigor. Sometimes everything seems to be going well for the player: here we are completing the picture at such a speed, that we are sure to be quickly finished. And now an obstacle presents itself… You have placed two similar figures on the same line… This fatal error, which did not however prevent you from moving forward, forces you to go back on your game or even to modify everything.

At this point in the game, don’t give up. And in strategic matters, avoid the escalation of commitment , that is to say the persistence of the same behavior in the face of a decision that leads to failure. Also, this shows us that the succession of successes can sometimes turn out to be illusory. And it is when an obstacle, sometimes belatedly, arises in your strategic path that you discover it.

Humility, prudence and rigor: a good strategist should cherish his pencil as much as the knowledge he acquires through his “corrected errors”.

Strategy is not just a part of Sudoku

If Sudoku can nurture strategic intelligence, it goes without saying that life is not a game.

Indeed, as the Dutch historian Joseph Huizinga defines it in his famous Homo Ludens. Essay on the social function of the game , the game is:

“A free action, felt as ‘fictitious’ and situated outside of everyday life, capable nevertheless of fully absorbing the player; an action devoid of any material interest and any utility; which takes place in an expressly defined time and space, takes place in order according to given rules and gives rise to group relations in life ”.

Moreover, Sudoku is far too serious to offer a sufficient analogy with the strategy of organizations. “The concept of play as such is of a higher order than that of seriousness. Because seriousness seeks to exclude play, while play can very well include seriousness in it ”.

However, if there is one final lesson we need to learn, then we would just like to say: persevere! As Gaston Bachelard wrote brilliantly at the conclusion of The Formation of the Scientific Spirit  : “The more difficult a work, the more educative it is”.

Author Bio: Ousama Bouiss is a PhD student in strategy and organizational theory at Paris Dauphine University – PSL