System thinking on “solutions” (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

Firstly, unstructured problems though”recognizable”, cannot be “defined”. Secondly, in problems in human activity systems history always changes the agenda. The contents of such systems are so multivarious, and the influences to which they are subject so numerous that the passage of time always modifies the perception of the problem (such problems really do sometimes “go away”!). Such perceptions of problems are always subjective, and they change with time. This is something which the research had to take into account. In fact a number of studies have been completed which are successful in the sense that they are judged so by both client and systems analyst but in which “the problem” was never defined throughout the whole course of the work.

In formal terms the research proceeds on the basis of the following definition of the word “problem”.

A problem relating to real-world manifestations of human activity systems is a condition characterised by a sense of mismatch, which eludes precise definition, between what is perceived to be actuality and what is perceived might become actuality.

In the early stages of the research it was accepted that whereas the definition of structured problems implies what will be accepted as “a solution”, unstructured problems – the concern of the research – must not be pressed into a structured form but must somehow be tackled in the absence of any firm definition of them. They are conditions to be alleviated rather than problems to be solved.

(Checkland, 1981, p. 155)


Problem def (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

By “problem” is meant not the puzzle, paradox or conundrum which exercises the philosopher, but simply any situation in which there is perceived to be a mismatch between “what is” and what might or could or should be.

(Checkland, 1981, p. xii)

Problematic situations (D’Zurilla & Nezu, 2006)

25 October 2010

Problematic situations commonly include one or more of the following natural aversive conditions:

  • Harmful or painful stimuli that threaten the homeostatic balance of the body, including various pathogens and any intense physical stimulus, for example, noise, heat, cold, or pressure (Selye, 1983).
  • Conflict, such as competing stimulus demands, or interpersonal conflict (Epstein, 1982; Janis & Mann, 1977; Phillips 1978).
  • Frustration, or an obstacle preventing a goal response (Mather, 1970).
  • Loss or deprivation of customary reinforcers (Mowrer, 1960).
  • Uncontrollability and unpredictability of aversive events (Hamberger & Lohr, 1984).
  • Ambiguity (Wrubel et al., 1981).
  • Complexity or novelty that cannot be assimilated successfully with stored information or prior experience (McClelland & Clark, 1966; Hunt, 1963).

(Followed by examples.)

(D’Zurilla & Nezu, 2006, p. 50)

Social problem solving (D’Zurilla & Chang, 2004)

25 October 2010

Life is complex and dynamic, filled with many enriching experiences. These experiences are what make life meaningful. When some experiences become bothersome and troubling, a person may feel uncertain about how to deal with them, or a person may try to cope but nothing seems to work. That is when experiences become problems. But experiencing problems and finding ways to deal with them effectively also serve to make life meaningful and promote growth and development. Even in extreme cases involving clinical dysfunction, some have argued that such individuals are experiencing “problems in living” with which they are unable to cope effectively. In that regard, social problem solving represents a broad and complex theory of how we go about solving problems in our day-to-day lives, from problems that are simple and benign to those that are complex and involve multiple causes and consequences. Social problem solving also represents a key form of intervention within contemporary psychotherapy and education, a way to better manage the demands of everyday living in a world that is often complex and unpredictable and sometimes irrational.

(D’Zurilla & Chang, 2004, p. xv)

Problem def (Ackoff, 1978)

18 October 2010

Problems are of two types: those involving the destruction, removal, or containment of something that is present but not desired, and those involving the acquisition or attainment of something that is absent but desired. The first type of problem, one that is negatively oriented, is concerned with eliminating a source of dissatisfaction, for example, a distracting noise, an illness, or a debt. The second type, one that is positively oriented, is concerned with attaining access to a source of satisfaction, for example, a friend, a good book, or money. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 19f)


Problems are goals (Ackoff, 1978)

18 October 2010

Choice or decision making consists of taking a course of action defined by values of one or more controlled variables. There must be at least two courses of action available, otherwise there is no choice and therefore no problem. There may, of course, be an unlimited number of courses of action available. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 11)

Not every choice situation is a problem situation, but every problem involves a choice. A problem arises when the decision maker has some doubt about the relative effectiveness of the alternative courses of action. The solution process is directed at dispelling doubt. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 12)

Using the conception of a problem set forth above we can consider problem solving with respect to what the decision maker does about each of these components:

  1. Objectives: desired outcomes
  2. Controlled variables: courses of action
  3. Uncontrolled variables: the environment
  4. The relationships among these three (Ackoff, 1978, p. 17)

It is apparent that what we want, our ends, influences our choice of means. Not so apparent is the fact that the available means influence our choice of ends. Our conception of possible outcomes affects what outcomes we desire. Our ability to solve problems is thereby limited by our conception of what is feasible. Furthermore, even our conception of the nature of the problem may be lImited in this way. However, such limits are often self-imposed. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 25)

Wicked problems (Hicks, 2004)

17 October 2010

Wicked problems have the following features:

  • they do not have a definitive problem description,
  • there is no certain way of knowing when you have reached the best solution,
  • their possible solutions are not true or false but somewhere between good and bad,
  • there is no immediate or ultimate way of testing the merit of a solution,
  • they have an infinite number of possible solutions,
  • the problem situation shows no precise indications as to what are/are not permissible ways of reaching a solution,
  • each problem is essentially unique,
  • there are many ways of looking at (defining) the problem and each one suggests a different direction in which we should perhaps look for a solution,
  • every wicked problem can be thought of as a symptom of another problem,
  • there is seldom any opportunity to determine a solution by trial and error,
  • it is usually imperative that we find a correct solution, preferably at the first attempt.

(Hicks, 2004, p. 18)