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MORS Special Meeting on Gaming

Background for the meeting in Fairfax, Virginia, 29 September to 1 October 2015.

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

The O.R. 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.

C. 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 steps 2 and 4 of the study process will constitute 'wicked problems', by this characterization where confusion and conflicting values 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.

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."

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 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".

The 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 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.