What Are Problem Structuring Methods And Why Are They Useful?


Monday, 8.31pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them. – Paul Hawken

Management as an art form is relatively recent. It was born in the United States to deal with the complexity involved in coordinating the work of increasingly larger organizations, like the continental railroads. The pioneers of management, like Frederick Taylor, dreamed of a scientific method that would reduce work to predictable elements. Taylorism made many improvements but didn’t quite realize that management is not just about the science of work – it’s also about the art of power.

This duel between work and power continued throughout the 20th century. The wars made it even more necessary to coordinate and organize large groups of people and things and managers of one kind of another were a crucial part of this process. Organizations got better at everything – mechanizing, optimizing, increasing efficiency – all amid a backdrop of power struggles between a group of European cousins – and the resulting loss of millions of lives.

The scientific approach works very well – so well that it seems like it’s the only way that works. So we try and approach everything using a science based mindset. But as history shows the one thing that science does not get is the way power works or what makes people tick. People and their feelings are irrelevant when it comes to scientific truth. But they are rather important when it comes to living.

Scientific approaches began to struggle in the 1970s with this issue of people and how they worked together. In wartime you can gloss over this because there is a clear objective – there’s an enemy and either we win or they do. In peacetime it gets more complicated and you have to get people to work together because they want to, not just because they have to. Managers, however, still operated like they had done for the decades before, using command and control strategies like generals commanding an army, not realizing that the battleground had shifted.

Problem Structuring Methods (Rosenhead, 1989), are a way to deal with the situations we are likely to find ourselves in these days. These situations have certain characteristics (Kotiadis and Mingers, 2006):

  1. They’re not clean and simple – they’re unstructured and messy situations filled with different kinds of problems.
  2. There are many actors.
  3. These actors have different perspectives or views of the situation and what they see as problems.
  4. The actors may have conflicts of interests.
  5. There are lots of unknowns – major uncertainties.
  6. You can’t put numbers to everything – many things are unquantifiable.

These kinds of situations send most people into a bit of a panic. They’re used to a world where there are clear goals – an objective that can be met. All you need is a plan and you need to work that plan and you’ll get there. In any real business situation, however, none of this is really that clear.

As an example consider the problem of home working that many organizations are grappling with these days. Some people think that you need to be in the office to do good work. Others have seen that being at home means they are more productive and provide better service. Do the people who want you in the office want you there because you work better there or because they feel they can control you better. Are some of the proponents the ones that own office blocks and shops that depend on occupancy? What about the reduction in emissions from commuting? Is your working from home policy helping productivity or damaging it if your people leave for a company that does let them work from home?

How do you go about considering such a problem space? Do you just go with what the bosses want or do you ask employees? What if you get the wrong answer? Should you try and arrange things so that you get the answer you want? And so on… the questions multiply and options diverge and converge and get entangled until you know that everyone will be unhappy whatever you do.

Problem structuring methods are a way of grappling with these situations. They are ways of thinking about these knotty problems and perhaps coming up with approaches that will make the situation better. They are, however, not general solutions – they are ones that can be used by a group of people in a particular situation to improve things. But a different situation will have different people who think differently and have different needs. And they will need a different approach and solution. And that’s ok. It’s about recognizing that life is complex and solutions have to deal with that complexity rather than reducing everything to a magic shortcut hack formula process.

Okay, you say, but what are these problem structuring methods?

Well, that needs a few more words and is perhaps one for another post.


Karthik Suresh


K Kotiadis & J Mingers (2006), Combining PSMs with hard OR methods: the philosophical and practical challenges, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 57:7, 856-867

J Rosenhead (Ed) (1989), Rational analysis for a problematic world: Problem structuring methods for complexity, uncertainty and conflict.

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