Problem Structuring Methods

Problem Structuring Methods are a family of methods that apply modelling approaches to address messy or wicked problems faced by the managers of organisations.

They seek to alleviate or improve situations characterised by uncertainty, conflict and complexity. Although the family of methods was described in Jonathan Rosenhead's 1989 book, Rational Analysis for A Problematic World, the special interest group does not limit itself to the approaches described there. It embraces all other cognate interpretative model building approaches and decision science tools aimed at supporting groups in working through problems.

The aims of the PSM Special Interest Group are to provide a forum which increases the understanding and practical use of PSMs amongst interested members of the broad OR community. It allows specialist PSM practitioners to explore the connections between PSMs and other MS/OR approaches and examines the applicability of software to supporting PSM practice. The group also promotes the exchange of experiences of teaching PSMs within higher education, of training in the use of PSMs in industry, commerce and government and supports the work of research students exploring PSM themes.

Join us for our next event:


When our backs are turned: exploring how people structure problems within an everyday workplace: followed by the PSM AGM

Date: 5 October 2023, 17.00 - 18.30

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This talk will describe and illustrate everyday PS as a commonplace activity, not labelled PS by those who nevertheless seek to comprehend wicked, messy, swampy situations, perceive choices available, and agree upon meaningful action. 

Existing OR literature is drawn upon to support identification of PS activity and to analyse key differences between the observed everyday PS and typical OR PSM interventions. Whilst PSM interventions construct and use artefacts that are typically similar in structure, everyday PS participants were seen to use a wide range of extant and non-templated artefacts. Analysis examines sections of PS dialogue to show different forms of participant alignment with these artefacts, impacting their use, interpretation and contribution to PS progress. This connection with wider organisational events and ideas supports development of an organisational perspective on PS. Within this perspective, the concept of a collective prior appreciation of wicked, messy, swampy situations is developed, an appreciation that is maintained and evolved through the cumulative development of and alignment with organisational artefacts. 

In light of these findings, it is anticipated that plenary discussion might focus upon the PSM principles and skills that are of particular relevance to the everyday PS context.

The talk will be followed by the PSM SIG AGM at approximately 6pm UK time

Systems Thinking and Process Philosophy: Convergent Evolution

Date: 19 October 2023, 17.00 - 18.00

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This talk considers the similarities and differences between process philosophy and systems thinking. Graeme will argue that they converge in treating the world as complex, interdependent and dynamic.

Systems thinking arose out of engineering contexts to think about interventions that have complex non-linear effects involving features such path-dependency, loops, and redundancy. Process philosophy arose from philosophical attempts to describe the world. Developed by A.N. Whitehead (1929), it is having a renaissance recently (Nicholson and Dupre 2018; Röck (2021). Process philosophy claims the world is made of processes rather than substances. This has two key consequences. 1) Processes are ‘goers on in time’ (Steward 2013) whose nature is to change. Therefore, it is stability that needs explanation, rather than change. 2) Processes, unlike substances, can’t exist independently. So processes can only be understood as interdependent with other processes. Though there are important differences between process philosophy and systems thinking, I will argue that they converge in treating the world as complex, interdependent and dynamic.

Towards a behavioural system dynamics: Exploring its scope and delineating its promise

Date: 6 December 2023, from 17.00 online

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Many different fields have been thinking about so-called ‘behavioural effects’. Similar activities are in full sway across OR. In this talk we ask whether this idea can be applied to System Dynamics modelling in a useful way. 

The central notion is that humans frequently do not employ strict rationality in their daily lives but make errors and are subject to fallacies. This insight can then shed light on the cognitive and human interaction aspects of the process and outcomes of modelling. These are phenomena of interest to many. 

In this talk we first raise some concerns about the current state of ‘Behavioural OR’ – BOR. To refocus the underlying ideas we return to the Decision Theory roots, then take a broader view using an illustration from the history of science, and finally build on work which first proposed a link to System Dynamics (SD).

In the core of the talk we explore in depth how behavioural ideas apply to SD. This is done using examples where complex systems are dealt with in a ‘naïve’ versus in a ‘sophisticated’ way. We then offer a new and detailed framework of the stages of an SD-based intervention, indicating the presence of behavioural effects and providing a fine-grained discussion of those effects as they apply to SD. 

We build on this by proposing a definition of ‘Behavioural System Dynamics’ (BehSD) in terms of its perspective on phenomena, and in terms of five new, constitutive axioms, and then outline its potential for improving practice. We close by reprising our views on the nature and potential of ‘BehSD’ and by sketching how research that adopts this perspective might go forward.

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Committee details

Christina Phillips
Co Chair
Martin Parr
Co Chair

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