About complex problem solving

A complex problem normally requires working to a formal plan, may need to be addressed by several people often from different disciplines and high levels of uncertainty may be present.

It is important to distinguish between:
* determinate and non-determinate problems
* top-down and bottom up solving strategies
These issues are discussed on pages 4 and 5 of To Engineer and are illustrated in Chapter 1 of this paper.

Here is a summary of what I consider to be the more important principles in relation to complex problem solving:

 1. When making decisions, you should discipline your mind not to jump to conclusions but to use a range of strategies to assess possible solutions.  Reason, in the form of logic and evidence, should be used so that informed judgements are made. This is a critical action in reducing the risk of unsatisfactory outcomes.

2. In complex problem solving, how you think is as important as what you can do.  ‘How you think’ can be characterised by the principles that guide your actions i.e. ethos. It is important to be explicit about such principles. They should be identified, recorded and adopted.

3. The constitution of the team that is charged with solving problems is of critical importance.  In particular, the leader of the team should be a person who is known to have the necessary attributes and the members of the team should have a suitable range of skills. See this paper.

4. Problem solving should be treated as a discipline in education, i.e. as a branch of learning. See Section 3 of this paper.

About me – Iain Alasdair MacLeod

I was born in Glasgow, Scotland and have lived for most of my life in towns adjacent to that city – but my ancestral and spiritual home lies in the countryside, the hills, the coast and the islands that lie to the north and west.

imI graduated BSc in Civil Engineering in 1960 and PhD in 1966, both at Glasgow University; I had practical experience in civil/structural engineering in Glasgow and in Vancouver, Canada; I worked in design research for the Portland Cement Association in Chicago and as a lecturer in civil engineering at Glasgow University; in 1973 I was appointed Head of Department at Paisley College of Technology (now the University of the West of Scotland) and in 1981 took up the post of Professor of Structural Engineering at the University of Strathclyde – from which I retired in 2004.

Early research work was on the use of the finite element method for the analysis of tall buildings. Starting in the 1980s I lead a team investigating the use of AI in the structural design of buildings. In order to develop computer support for design, we needed to understand how designers operated. I became a student (in the sense of a person who studies) of engineering processes. We interviewed engineers who were involved in creative design, seeking to identify principles that they used.

 I also worked on a modelling process mainly directed at the use of computer analysis of structures. I wrote a book that focused on this issue:  Modern Structural Analysis, 2005.

  In 2017, IESIS published To Engineer that sets out my interpretation of how professional engineers solve complex problems.

At Strathclyde University, in each year of the undergraduate courses in civil engineering, there was design project work amounting to one sixth of the curriculum. Based on what was happening in practice, I developed a project process map and associated guidance that students were required to use in their design work.  In the 4th year of the course the student groups were tutored by a practising engineer with whom they met regularly. Student reaction to this experience was very positive and the tutors were impressed that, in some cases, close to professional outcomes were achieved.

Structural analysis, the use of mathematical models to predict the behaviour of structures, is normally taught as an exercise in achieving solutions.  In the latter years of the course I taught it as an exercise in modelling.  I believe that, in the computer era, we need a different philosophy about how some things are done. 

 At Strathclyde I had a leading role in creating and managing a course on Building Design Engineering where students in structural engineering, architecture and building services engineering worked closely together to learn to design buildings.

I like to think that the research and the teaching that I did at Strathyclyde were well integrated.  In research I studied how professional engineers operated and tried to pass that on to the students.

In 2006, I joined IESIS, the Institution of Engineers in Scotland and have been very active in their affairs (President 2012-14). IESIS, established in 1857, is a multidisciplinary engineering institution.

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