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Operational Research, Problem Solving

Problem Structuring Methods

I spent an interesting afternoon yesterday with some of the team from Jigsaw Consultants who specialise in Operational Research (“the science of better”!).  We shared our knowledge and experience of Problem Structuring Methods and had some useful discussions about how these could apply to different client situations.

Problem Structuring Methods are ways in which an individual or a team can clarify their understanding of a problem before launching into any data collection, modelling or analysis.  Typically, they provide highly visual ways of engaging with those people affected by the problem and those trying to solve it.  As such, the facilitation skills required to make them work are at least as important as the technical skills related to each technique.

We brainstormed a list of techniques with which we were familiar and came up with over a dozen:

–          Causal Mapping (Cognitive Mapping/ Influence Diagramming)

–          Strategic Choice Approach (SCA)

–          Constellations (Systems Thinking/Systems Dynamics)

–          Affinity Diagrams

–          Fishbone Diagrams

–          Soft Systems Methods

–          Hypergames/Drama Theory

–          SWOT

–          Brainstorming (and variants such as Affinity Diagrams)

–          Six Thinking Hats (from Edward DeBono)

–          Decision Trees

–          DMAIC (from Six Sigma)

–          Is/Is Not Problem Definition

–          Theory of Constraints

Clearly, there are many approaches available to help provide some structure to a problem and to help “frame” it.  As with all such approaches, there is no “one right way” and you do have to be wary of consultants and facilitators who are wedded to a particular approach.  Remember the old saying “if the only tool you have is a hammer, pretty soon every problem starts looking like a nail”.

In my experience, any of techniques is only as good as the “process” in which it is used and the way it is facilitated.  None of the Problem Structuring Methods solve a problem for you, they simply help move you towards a consensus view on how the problem might best be solved.

If you’d like more information on how Problem Structuring Methods might be of value in your organisation, or how they might help identify how to go about fixing long-term problems, please e-mail us.



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