Using Problem Structuring Methods: finding solutions and framing analysis

"There is an old saying that a problem well put is half solved. This much is obvious. What is not so obvious, however, is how to put a problem well."



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This was said by three pioneers of operational research in 1957. More than 60 years later, we have ever more extraordinary computing power, smart algorithms and bigger and bigger data and, yet, we can still end up tackling the wrong problem.

Most of the important decision issues in business, in the public sector and in government can be formulated in more than one way. One of us worked with the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival, helping them get to grips with the problems of their success. Should the priorities for change be safety (food hygiene, shared road space, criminal opportunity); or coping with access challenges; or enhancing opportunities for culturally diverse expression; or improving quality of life for imposed-upon local residents? 

Or consider how a senior management team of a large corporation decides what to cut back on given a need to reduce overall costs by 5%. There are many views, all based on experience and expertise, and, of course, the consequences personally. One of us worked with the group for a day (using SODA) to enable mutually-acceptable agreements to be reached after all views were surfaced and connected.

None of these formulations is right or wrong; and in each case there is a legitimate interest group which wants its problem, its view point, to be taken into account. Situations like these are the most challenging for analysts to work with. OR’s most powerful analytic tools work by finding the best answer to any particular one of these competing problems − which is fine when one view point can be prioritised and the others relegated at least for now. But in many strategic situations:

  • there are units, organisations, interests who are legitimate stakeholders in the situation whose cooperation will be crucial in implementation;
  • the information relevant to sorting out any version of the problem is divided between them; and
  • some potentially crucial aspects and factors are either subjective, disputed or simply unknowable.

These tend to be the richest and often the most rewarding and important problem situations that organisations have to deal with. And operational research has a repertoire of methods that can help groups, usually made up of stakeholder representatives, get to grips with the challenge of making progress. It is this family of methods, most usually called problem structuring methods, that will be the subject of an innovative programme that the two of us together with Mark Westcombe will be delivering starting in September.

This programme is designed for analysts and managers who have experience of working at a more strategic level, or wish to prepare themselves better for doing so. A central feature of the programme is the inclusion of a ‘community of practice’ session for each of the three main methods presented in the course.

In these sessions participants will discuss interactively with tutors and each other the ways in which the methods they have been exposed to could be used in their own work environments. In this way we hope to build a bridge from exposition and absorption into practical implementation.

Details of the training programme Using Problem Structuring Methods: finding solutions and framing analysis are available on The OR Society website at


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