Problem structuring methods

Problem structuring methods (PSMs) are a group of techniques used to model or to map the nature or structure of a situation or state of affairs that some people want to change.[1] PSMs are usually used by a group of people in collaboration (rather than by a solitary individual) to create a consensus about, or at least to facilitate negotiations about, what needs to change.[2] Some widely adopted PSMs[1] include soft systems methodology,[3] the strategic choice approach,[4] and strategic options development and analysis (SODA).[5]

Unlike some problem solving methods that assume that all the relevant issues and constraints and goals that constitute the problem are defined in advance or are uncontroversial, PSMs assume that there is no single uncontested representation of what constitutes the problem.[6]

PSMs are mostly used with groups of people, but PSMs have also influenced the coaching and counseling of individuals.[7]


The term "problem structuring methods" as a label for these techniques began to be used in the 1980s in the field of operations research,[8] especially after the publication of the book Rational Analysis for a Problematic World: Problem Structuring Methods for Complexity, Uncertainty and Conflict.[9] Some of the methods that came to be called PSMs had been in use since the 1960s.[2]

Thinkers who later came to be recognized as significant early contributors to the theory and practice of PSMs include:[10]

Types of situations that call for PSMs

In discussions of problem structuring methods, it is common to distinguish between two different types of situations that could be considered to be problems.[17] Rittel and Webber's distinction between tame problems and wicked problems (Rittel & Webber 1973) is a well known example of such types.[17] The following table lists similar (but not exactly equivalent) distinctions made by a number of thinkers between two types of "problem" situations, which can be seen as a continuum between a left and right extreme:[18]

Different types of situations, and thinkers who named them[18]
Thinker Left extreme Right extreme
Rittel & Webber Tame problem Wicked problem
Herbert A. Simon Programmed decision Non-programmed decision
Russell L. Ackoff Puzzle / Problem Mess
Jerome Ravetz Technical problem Practical problem
Ronald Heifetz Technical challenge Adaptive challenge
Peter Checkland Hard systems Soft systems
Donald Schön The high ground The swamp
Barry Johnson Problems to solve Polarities to manage

Tame problems (or puzzles or technical challenges) have relatively precise, straightforward formulations that are often amenable to solution with some predetermined technical fix or algorithm. It is clear when these situations have changed in such a way that the problem can be called solved.

Wicked problems (or messes or adaptive challenges) have multiple interacting issues with multiple stakeholders and uncertainties and no definitive formulation. These situations are complex and have no stopping rule and no ultimate test of a solution.

PSMs were developed for situations that tend toward the wicked or "soft" side, when methods are needed that assist argumentation about, or that generate mutual understanding of multiple perspectives on, a complex situation.[17] Other problem solving methods are better suited to situations toward the tame or "hard" side where a reliable and optimal solution is needed to a problem that can be clearly and uncontroversially defined.


Problem structuring methods constitute a family of approaches that have differing purposes and techniques, and many of them had been developed independently before people began to notice their family resemblance.[17] Several scholars have noted the common and divergent characteristics among PSMs.

Eden and Ackermann identified four characteristics that problem structuring methods have in common:[19]

  1. The methods focus on creating "a model that is populated with data that is specific to the problem situation". These cause–effect models can be analyzed (albeit in different ways by different methods), and the models are intended to facilitate conversation and negotiation between the participants.
  2. The methods seek to increase the overall productivity of group processes. Productivity includes creating better agreements that are more likely to be implemented, and realizing (to the extent possible in the given situation) ideals such as communicative rationality and procedural justice.
  3. The methods emphasize that the facilitation of effective group processes requires some attention to, and open conversation about, power and politics within and between organizations. Power and politics can become especially important when major change is being proposed.
  4. The methods provide techniques and skills for facilitation of group processes, and they appreciate that such techniques and skills are essential for effective sensemaking, systems modeling, and participative decision-making. People who use PSMs must pay attention to what group facilitators call process skills (guiding interactions between people through nonlinear applications of the methods) and content skills (helping people build sufficiently comprehensive models of the given situation).

Rosenhead provided another list of common characteristics of PSMs, formulated in a more prescriptive style:[20]

  • Seek solutions which satisfice on separate dimensions rather than seeking an optimal decision on a single dimension.
  • Integrate hard and soft (quantitative and qualitative) data with social judgments.
  • Produce models that are as transparent as possible to and that clarify conflicts of interpretation, rather than hiding conflicts behind neutral technical language.
  • Consider people to be agents actively involved in the decision-making process, rather than as passive objects to be modeled or ignored.
  • Facilitate the problem structuring process from the bottom-up as much as possible, not only top-down from formal organizational leadership.
  • Aim to preserve options in the face of unavoidable uncertainty, rather than to base decisions on a prediction of the future.

An early literature review of problem structuring proposed grouping the texts reviewed into "four streams of thought" that describe some major differences between methods:[21]

  • the checklist stream, which is step-by-step technical problem solving (not problem structuring as it came to be defined in PSMs, so this stream does not apply to PSMs),
  • the definition stream, which is primarily modeling of relationships between variables, as described by Ackoff and others,
  • the science research stream which emphasizes doing field research and gathering quantitative data, and
  • the people stream, which "regards the definition of problems as a function of people's perceptions" as described by Checkland, Eden, and others.

Compared to large group methods

Mingers and Rosenhead have noted that there are similarities and differences between PSMs and large group methods such as Future Search, Open Space Technology, and others.[22] PSMs and large group methods both bring people together to talk about, and to share different perspectives on, a situation or state of affairs that some people want to change. However, PSMs always focus on creating a sufficiently rigorous conceptual model or cognitive map of the situation, whereas large group methods do not necessarily emphasize modeling, and PSMs are not necessarily used with large groups of people.[22]

Compared to participatory rural appraisal

There is significant overlap or shared characteristics between PSMs and some of the techniques used in participatory rural appraisal (PRA). Mingers and Rosenhead pointed out that in situations where people have low literacy, the nonliterate (oral and visual) techniques developed in PRA would be a necessary complement to PSMs, and the approaches to modeling in PSMs could be (and have been) used by practitioners of PRA.[23]


In 2004, Mingers and Rosenhead published a literature review of papers that had been published in scholarly journals and that reported practical applications of PSMs.[24] Their literature survey covered the period up to 1998, which was "relatively early in the development of interest in PSMs",[25] and categorized 51 reported applications under the following application areas: general organizational applications; information systems; technology, resources, planning; health services; and general research. Examples of applications reported included: designing a parliamentary briefing system, modeling the San Francisco Zoo, developing a business strategy and information system strategy, planning livestock management in Nepal, regional planning in South Africa, modeling hospital outpatient services, and eliciting knowledge about pesticides.[24]

Technology and software

PSMs are a general methodology and are not necessarily dependent on electronic information technology,[26] but PSMs do rely on some kind of shared display of the models that participants are developing. The shared display could be flip charts, a large whiteboard, Post-it notes on the meeting room walls, and/or a personal computer connected to a video projector.[26] After PSMs have been used in a group work session, it is normal for a record of the session's display to be shared with participants and with other relevant people.[26]

Software programs for supporting problem structuring include Banxia Decision Explorer and Group Explorer,[27] which implement cognitive mapping for strategic options development and analysis (SODA), and Compendium, which implements IBIS for dialogue mapping and related methods;[28] a similar program is called Wisdom.[29] Such software can serve a variety of functions, such as simple technical assistance to the group facilitator during a single event, or more long-term online group decision support systems.

Some practitioners prefer not to use computers during group work sessions because of the effect they have on group dynamics, but such use of computers is standard in some PSMs such as SODA[27] and dialogue mapping,[28] in which computer display of models or maps is intended to guide conversation in the most efficient way.[26]

In some situations additional software that is not used only for PSMs may be incorporated into the problem structuring process; examples include spreadsheet modeling, system dynamics software[30] or geographic information systems.[31] Some practitioners, who have focused on building system dynamics simulation models with groups of people, have called their work group model building (GMB) and have concluded "that GMB is another PSM".[32] GMB has also been used in combination with SODA.[33]

See also


  1. Rosenhead 2013, p. 1162
  2. Rosenhead 1996, p. 117
  3. Checkland & Poulter 2006
  4. Friend & Hickling 2005
  5. Reynolds & Holwell 2010, pp. 135–190
  6. Rosenhead 1996, p. 118
  7. For example: Chatjoulis & Humphreys 2007
  8. For examples, see: Norris 1985, p. 871; Dunn 1988, p. 720; Landis 1988, pp. 117–119. William N. Dunn wrote in 1988: "In the absence of appropriate problem-structuring methods, how can we expect to formulate problems that encompass the proper elements, for example, the proper policy objectives, alternatives, and expected outcomes? Given a particular problem formulation, how do we know whether all important elements have been included in the set? In short, how do we know when we have formulated an approximate solution to the right problem, as distinguished from an exact solution to the wrong problem?" (Dunn 1988, p. 720)
  9. Rosenhead 1989
  10. Rosenhead 2013, p. 1164
  11. Rittel & Webber 1973
  12. For example: Ackoff 1974, Ackoff 1979
  13. Checkland 1975, Checkland 1981
  14. For example: Eden & Sims 1979, Eden 1982, Eden & Ackermann 2006
  15. For example: Jackson & Keys 1984, Flood & Jackson 1991
  16. For example: Rosenhead 1989, Mingers & Rosenhead 2001
  17. Rosenhead 2013, pp. 1163–1164
  18. This table is adapted from: Culmsee & Awati 2013, p. 108
  19. Eden & Ackermann 2006
  20. Rosenhead 2013, pp. 1164–1165
  21. Woolley & Pidd 1981, pp. 203–204
  22. Mingers & Rosenhead 2004, p. 548; examples of large group methods can be found in Bunker & Alban 2006
  23. Mingers & Rosenhead 2004, pp. 548–549
  24. Mingers & Rosenhead 2004, pp. 541–542
  25. Rosenhead 2013, p. 1167
  26. Rosenhead 2013, p. 1170
  27. Ackermann & Eden 2011; Rosenhead 2013, p. 1169
  28. Conklin 2006; Culmsee & Awati 2013; Culmsee & Awati 2014
  29. Mackenzie et al. 2006
  30. For example: Rodriguez-Ulloa & Paucar-Caceres 2005; Hovmand 2014, p. 83
  31. For example: Pfeiffer et al. 2008; Ferretti 2016
  32. Andersen et al. 2007, p. 691
  33. Herrera et al. 2016


  • Ackermann, Fran; Eden, Colin (2011) [1998]. Making strategy: mapping out strategic success (2nd ed.). London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN 9781849201193. OCLC 754163654.
  • Checkland, Peter (1975). "The development of systems thinking by systems practice: a methodology from an action research program". In Trappl, Robert; Hanika, Francis de Paula (eds.). Progress in cybernetics and systems research. 2. Washington, DC: Hemisphere Pub. Corp. pp. 278–283. ISBN 978-0470884768. OCLC 768420617.
  • Conklin, E. Jeffrey (2006). Dialogue mapping: building shared understanding of wicked problems. Chichester, UK; Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0470017685. OCLC 60491946.
  • Culmsee, Paul; Awati, Kailash (2013) [2011]. "Problem structuring methods". The heretic's guide to best practices: the reality of managing complex problems in organisations. Bloomington: iUniverse. pp. 212–245. ISBN 9781462058549. OCLC 767703320.
  • Dunn, William N. (June 1988). "Methods of the second type: coping with the wilderness of conventional policy analysis". Review of Policy Research. 7 (4): 720–737. doi:10.1111/j.1541-1338.1988.tb00891.x.
  • Herrera, Hugo J.; McCardle-Keurentjes, Marleen H. F.; Videira, Nuno (November 2016). "Evaluating facilitated modelling processes and outcomes: an experiment comparing a single and a multimethod approach in group model building". Group Decision and Negotiation. 25 (6): 1277–1318. doi:10.1007/s10726-016-9480-z.
  • Mingers, John; Rosenhead, Jonathan, eds. (2001). Rational analysis for a problematic world revisited: problem structuring methods for complexity, uncertainty and conflict (2nd ed.). Chichester, UK; New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0471495239. OCLC 46601256.
  • Pfeiffer, Constanze; Glaser, Stephanie; Vencatesan, Jayshree; Schliermann-Kraus, Elke; Drescher, Axel; Glaser, Rüdiger (November 2008). "Facilitating participatory multilevel decision-making by using interactive mental maps". Geospatial Health. 3 (1): 103–112. doi:10.4081/gh.2008.236.
  • Rosenhead, Jonathan, ed. (1989). Rational analysis for a problematic world: problem structuring methods for complexity, uncertainty, and conflict. Chichester, UK; New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0471922858. OCLC 19847533.

Further reading

  • Veldhuis, Guido Arjan; Scheepstal, Peter van; Rouwette, Etiënne; Logtens, Tom (June 2015). "Collaborative problem structuring using MARVEL". EURO Journal on Decision Processes. 3 (3–4): 249–273. doi:10.1007/s40070-015-0045-1.
  • Metcalfe, Mike; Sastrowardoyo, Saras (November 2013). "Complex project conceptualisation and argument mapping". International Journal of Project Management. 31 (8): 1129–1138. doi:10.1016/j.ijproman.2013.01.004.
  • Roam, Dan (2011). Blah blah blah: what to do when words don't work. New York: Portfolio/Penguin. ISBN 9781591844594.
  • Belton, Valerie; Stewart, Theodor (2010). "Problem structuring and multiple criteria decision analysis". In Ehrgott, Matthias; Figueira, José; Greco, Salvatore (eds.). Trends in multiple criteria decision analysis. International series in operations research & management science. 142. New York: Springer Verlag. pp. 209–239. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-5904-1_8. ISBN 9781441959034.
  • Waltner-Toews, David; Kay, James; Lister, Nina-Marie E., eds. (2008). The ecosystem approach: complexity, uncertainty, and managing for sustainability. Complexity in ecological systems series. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231132503. OCLC 221664360.
  • O'Brien, Frances A.; Dyson, Robert G., eds. (2007). Supporting strategy: frameworks, methods and models. Chichester, UK; Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9780470057186. OCLC 76073738.
  • Bryant, Jim (2003). The six dilemmas of collaboration: inter-organisational relationships as drama. Chichester, UK; Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0470843925. OCLC 59464466.
  • Conklin, E. Jeffrey; Yakemovic, K. C. Burgess (September 1991). "A process-oriented approach to design rationale". Human–Computer Interaction. 6 (3): 357–391. doi:10.1207/s15327051hci0603&4_6.
  • Nadler, Gerald; Hibino, Shōzō; Farrell, John (1995) [1990]. Creative solution finding: the triumph of breakthrough thinking over conventional problem solving. Rocklin, CA: Prima Pub. ISBN 978-1559585675. OCLC 30593721.
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