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  • Journal of the Operational Research Society (2007) 58, 576 --587 2007 Operational Research Society Ltd. All rights reserved. 0160-5682/07 $

    Problem structuring methods: theorizing the benefitsof deconstructing sustainable development projectsS Bell1 and S Morse21Open University, Milton Keynes, UK; and 2University of Reading, Reading, Berkshire, UKProblem structuring methods or PSMs are widely applied across a range of variable but generally small-scaleorganizational contexts. However, it has been argued that they are seen and experienced less often in areas ofwide ranging and highly complex human activityspecifically those relating to sustainability, environment,democracy and conflict (or SEDC). In an attempt to plan, track and influence human activity in SEDC contexts,the authors in this paper make the theoretical case for a PSM, derived from various existing approaches. Theyshow how it could make a contribution in a specific practical contextwithin sustainable coastal developmentprojects around the Mediterranean which have utilized systemic and prospective sustainability analysis or,as it is now known, Imagine. The latter is itself a PSM but one which is bounded within the limits ofthe project to help deliver the required deliverables set out in the project blueprint. The authors argue thatsustainable development projects would benefit from a deconstruction of process by those engaged in theproject and suggest one approach that could be takena breakout from a project-bounded PSM to an analysisthat embraces the project itself. The paper begins with an introduction to the sustainable development contextand literature and then goes on to illustrate the issues by grounding the debate within a set of projects facilitatedby Blue Plan for Mediterranean coastal zones. The paper goes on to show how the analytical framework couldbe applied and what insights might be generated.Journal of the Operational Research Society (2007) 58, 576587. doi:10.1057/palgrave.jors.2602311Published online 15 November 2006

    Keywords: problem structuring methods; sustainable development; projects; Blue Plan


    This paper is concerned with some critical reflections onthe use of a problem structuring method (PSM) within aparticularly challenging contextnamely the implementa-tion of sustainable development projects. PSMs have beenused, applauded and criticized for many years. In theirseminal compendium, Rosenhead and Mingers (2001), de-fined the genre as: methods for structuring issues, prob-lems and decision situations, rather than solving them(Rosenhead and Mingers, page xiii), and provided a forumwhere the main methods could be compared and contrastedwhile being promoted by their various advocates. Rosen-head and Mingers (2001) presented the PSM icons of thegenre and aligned them in a sympathetic and comparableconceptual frameworkallowing an important opportunityto compare, contrast and judge. The first chapter of theirbook sets the scene on the history of the development ofPSMs which are seen to have arisen from a paradigm shiftin the way in which the world is seen and the conspic-uous failure of the traditional, conventional quantitativemethods of modernism to cope with complexity and mess.

    Correspondence: S Bell, Pi, Green Lane, Wicklewood, Norfolk, NR189ET, UK.E-mail:

    This chapter brings to life what are often experienced as aridfluctuations in intellectual life, and puts flesh on the bonesby aligning organizations and personalities with change andflux. The chapter sets the scene for the necessary (if notsufficient) reason for PSMs which were non-quantifiable,participatory and shared between problem solvers (for fur-ther elaboration of this point, see Taket and White, 2000;Chambers, 2002).

    Rosenhead and Mingers (2001) provide reviews of thinkingand practice making use of a range of methods and method-ologies, specifically: strategic options development analysis,soft systems methodology, strategic choice approach, robust-ness analysis and drama theory. All these PSMs can be arguedto have as their aspiration the liberating of problem solvingfrom conventional and silo mentalities. They also share manyfeatures, and are indeed well established in the literature andindeed among PSM practitioners. However, we argue thatRosenhead and Mingers (2001) book is indicative of problemswith PSMs, both in terms of their formalization and the con-text of much of their application (for example, the manner inwhich most PSMs are delivered . . . the formal workshop). YetPSMs in a general sense can have much to offer, especiallywithin the challenging context of sustainable development.Our thesis is that PSMs can be valuable but at the same timeare often constrained within the boundaries of that all too

  • S Bell and S MorseProblem structuring methods 577

    typical vehicle of practicethe project which tend to focuson time and budget bound, pre-project identified outputsconsidered of value to those drafting the project proposal.In this paper, we will return to this pointrelating it toour own experiences, most specifically, contexts where keyissues for the 21st century are being experiencedcontextswhere messy issues of sustainable development, envi-ronmental change, democratizing agencies and conflict(SEDC) (For further details on SEDC see Bell (2005)) areexperienced.

    The paper will begin with a brief review of the contestedterrain of sustainable development and set out why it is somessy, particularly when implemented through resourceand time-bound projects. We will illustrate the problems andpotential context within which the analytical framework couldbe applied, using a case study of the Mediterranean CoastalArea Management Projects facilitated by Blue Plan. We ac-cept that while the example is a specific one we would suggestthat it all too clearly sets out the problems that PSMs face insuch contexts and perhaps helps to explain the uniformity re-ferred to earlier. We will follow this with a proposal for intro-ducing an element of questioning within the project processas an element of problem solving. In effect, the paper seeks toset out the theoretical basis for an analytical framework thatcan be applied to sustainable development projects. The paperwill end with a discussion of the application of our analyticalframework and the difficulties it would face in practice.

    PSMs in sustainable development

    The term sustainable (=sustainability) is applied to a hostof human activities and structures to imply that they can con-tinue into the future without detriment to either people ortheir environment. It has been used as an adjective for activ-ities such as agriculture, water supply, resource managementand development, as well as the institutions charged withsupporting them. We often forget that it is the activities (egdevelopment) which are the important elements (and gener-ally well defined) and the adjective sustainable is added toensure that the activities will continue into the future withoutany detriment. As a result, there is some plasticity as to themeaning of sustainable (Mitcham, 1995). How far into thefuture are we talking about, and what exactly does detrimentmean and to whom does it apply? Unsurprisingly, the evolu-tion of sustainability has been long and complex, with richintersections to economics and politics (Kidd, 1992; Moffat,2004; Castro, 2004; Robinson, 2004).

    While many disagreements exist as to what sustainabledevelopment means in practice, there is no doubt as to itspopularity. Maybe these two are not unrelatedafter allsome plasticity in meaning can only help encourage popular-ity. Typically sustainable development is promoted throughthe use of time and resource-bounded projects. Yet at thesame time sustainable development can be thought of asthe classic representation of a mess to which PSM can be

    applied. It covers a range of inter-related and interactingissues and is highly contentious in meaning. Indeed, in recentpublications we put forward a PSM for gaining understandingof human/environmental issues of significant, experiencedcomplexity, and for analysing progress through a sustain-able development project (Bell and Morse, 2003, 2005). Theunderlying rationale for this was to try and move awayfrom the current position where virtually all of a projectsvalue is seen primarily by the funders to reside with thedeliverablesthe tangible outputs. We argued instead fora greater emphasis on learning and participation within theproject as a valuable output in itself. This is very much intune with what we perceive to be a dichotomy within thesustainable development literature (Bell and Morse, 2003):

    Sustainability as an end point. An emphasis on an endpoint deemed to represent some notion of an improve-ment in sustainability or at least setting the ground for suchan improvement. For example, reducing traffic or reducingpollution to some notional target (reference condition).

    Sustainability through learning. Emphasis not on an endpoint per se (indeed is there ever an end point with sus-tainable development?) but upon our evolution and change(learning). Here the deliverables are less tangible in theshorter term (eg better awareness of the problems and,hopefully, an increased desire to do something about it),but still tangible in the longer term.

    These dichotomous worldviews share what can be calledthe soul of sustainable developmenthelping to makeall of our lives better without sacrificing the lot of futuregenerationsbut have quite different ramifications. The firstfits more tightly into our current vogue for targets, modern-ization and value for money. After all someone has to spendresources (cash, time) to try to arrive at that end point. InWestern democracies, there may well be political costs in thepromotion of policies that the population may not be entirelyin tu