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Australian Defence Force

Background for the Basic and Advanced Analytic Wargaming Courses from the Naval Postgraduate School in Canberra, 17 February to 6 March 2020

Wicked Problems, Problem Structuring Methods, and Soft O.R.

The operational research community has developed many tools over the years to deal what are commonly called "wicked problems". A useful first step was to recognize that these problems existed and that the O.R. community at the time had few good tools to address them.

West Churchman brought Horst Rittel's concept of 'wicked problems' to the attention of the O.R. community in 1967. Such problems are 'social problems which are ill formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing' (see Churchman's "Wicked problems" in Management Science, 1967, pp. 141–142).

In many ways the problems that will be encountered in the early steps of the study process will constitute 'wicked problems', where confusion and conflicting values and objetives may dominate. Indeed wicked probems may be encountered throughout the study process, and not in these steps alone.

Of the tools that developed over the years, many came from the practice of O.R. in Britain. Indeed the US community has been criticized for largely ignoring the issue entirely.

However, recently attention has been brought to many tools that can be used when O.R. analysts encounter 'wicked probems'. A search for appropriate tools may take the reader to references largely outside the usual domain of the US O.R. community, see the sidebar on references.

Soft Tools for Operations Research and Wargaming

Diagramming for a Better Understand of a New Situation

Rich Pictures

Video: 4:54 ⇒ 

Rich pictures were introduced by Peter Checkland and developed as part of Soft System Methodology (SSM). This is a widely used problem structuring method in operations research.

For the NPS course, only rich pictures from SSM will be covered. Students should investigate SSM further as a means to structure problems that are unfamiliar or which seem overly daunting in complexity. An article in Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Rich Picture of Zefra

Video: 4:51 ⇒ 

This video provides an example of using a rich picture to describe the situation in Zefra in April 2020.

Note that the picture need not be perfect. The comments at the end of the video indicate some shortcomings of the described picture. However, the picture need not be re-drawn, as long as the shortcomings are kept in mind.

Influence Diagrams

Video: 4:54 ⇒ 

This video introduces influence diagrams. Note that several formats for influence diagrams have developed recently. An article in Wikipedia describes symbology intended for a much more sophisticated application than is intended here.

Multiple Cause Diagrams

Video: 2:13 ⇒ 

Multiple cause diagrams and causal loop diagrams essentially serve the same purpose. There are only minor differences in the use of symbols. Multiple cause diagrams and causal loop diagrams can be precursors to developing a system dynamics model of a situation. But they can be very informative in their own right. In this application they are used without an intention to develop a system dynamics model.

Uses of Multiple Cause Diagrams

Video: 1:34 ⇒ 

Uses of multiple cause diagrams are covered in this video. It also serves as an introduction to subsequent videos.

Drawing Multiple Cause Diagrams

Video: 3:36 ⇒ 

This video will give you background on drawing your own multiple cause diagrams.

Drawing Causal Connections

Video: 3:30 ⇒ 

This video helps to develop skills in drawing causal connections.

Recognizing Feedback Loops

Video: 8:36 ⇒ 

Finding feedback loops is a critical aspect of understanding the causes of various events.

The example in this video is particularly relevant to military situations as it covers some aspects of terrorism and suicide bombing.

Sign Graphs

Video: 3:43 ⇒ 

Finally signs can be added to feedback loops. This will help in the interpretation of the diagram in terms of positive and negative feedback loops.

Additional Sources

The material for diagramming practices is available directly from the Open University. However, the OU site uses Flash media and may not be viewable in browsers that cannot use the Flash format. The videos above were created from the Flash presentations so they could be viewed on a wider variety of devices.

Written guidelines for drawing the different sorts of diagrams are also available at the Open University site. They are also available in PDF form.

References on "Soft Methods"

The UK Operational Research Society

A worthy introduction to "soft O.R. methods" for problem structuring was published by the society's journal: Special Issue: Problem Structuring Methods (see JORS, Volume 57, Issue 7 (July 2006))

The authors provide their definition of PSM:

"Problem structuring methods (PSMs) are ... approaches that aim to support a diverse collection of actors ... [when the] situation is normally characterized by high levels of complexity and uncertainty, where differing perspectives, conflicting priorities, and prominent intangibles are the norm rather than the exception."

Recent Books on Problem Structuring Methods

A number of authors have published books on problem structuring methods. The authors don't always use that term for the approaches they propose. Alternative terms are "structured analysis", "systems thinking", or "problem solving".

Some of the proposed methods, like "rich pictures" and "soft systems methodology" from Peter Checkland and "Six Thinking Hats" from Edward de Bono have been used successfully for several decades. Recent texts provide catalogues of diverse methods that can be used to dive into problems.

NATO Report on Judgement-Based Methods

Within NATO, the System Analysis and Studies (SAS) panel recently published material on what they term "Judgement-Based Operational Analysis". The code of best practice has been published in three formats: a detailed report for analysts to use as a handbook, an executive summary for potential clients, and a pamphlet to provide wider dissemination of the methods that are available.

US Army – Command and General Staff College

The School of Advanced Military Studies (part of the Command and General Staff College) has issued a Handbook on Design. This is to support the teaching at SAMS of the Army Design Methodology (para 2-24 to 2-51). From the SAMS handbook, Appendix B provides a comprehensive list of tools that SAMS students should consider when confronted with "wicked problems".

This appendix calls these tools "Design Methods", but a comparison with tools already mentioned, it is clear that there is considerable overlap with the problem structuring methods used in the O.R. community. In his earlier paper, the original author (LtCol Richard King of the Australian Army) "catalogued and described 29 primary techniques for critical thinking". So these tools are not limited to the application of the art of design or the army design methodology.

Teaching Problem Structuring Methods and Soft O.R.

The civilian component of the O.R. community has started to develop material for teaching methods for judgement-based operational analysis; see link above. This should be consulted by those who feel that their organizations need to develop an education or training program to integrate these methods into their own practices.

The authors give perspective to the issue:

"PSMs are a family of methods that developed, at first independently, out of a long drawn-out crisis of dissatisfaction with the ability of the traditional mathematical methods of O.R. to give modellers access to the more strategic problems and issues of the organisations they worked in or wished to help."

"These are 'social problems which are ill formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing'"

"The sister phrase, soft O.R., has a less clear meaning. At one extreme it has been used to signify any use of operational research that pays serious attention to nonquantitative factors. But more often soft O.R. has been used as a virtual synonym for PSMs."

Structured Analysis Methods from the Intelligence Community

A recent book provides structured analytic techniques intended for those working in the intelligence community: Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis. In it the authors describe fifty-five structured procedures that reflect best practices in intelligence, defense and security, and business analysis. These procedures are clearly and systematically described, with useful illustrations. This book should serve as a useful reference for analysts in diverse fields, including military O.R.