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 An interview with Dr. Alexander de Haan from Delft University of Technology, the instructor of the upcoming MOOC Solving Complex Problems.

What is unique about solving multi-actor problems? And how can an engineering approach help?

In the 1950s a politician or engineer would have said: ‘I know what the problem is, and this is what we are going to do about it’, and this was about it. Nowadays, clear situations like this are very rare. In today’s world, we encounter ‘spaghetti situations’, where all the parts are connected to each other and have an impact on their surroundings. This makes problem solving a very complex process.

In my view, problem solving consists of two aspects. The first aspect is the models with which we approach the problem, and the second is the social approach, or the human factors that are involved in the decision-making process. In the “Solving Complex Problems” MOOC we will focus on the former. We will master analytical techniques, just like an engineering approach. We will have our own tools such as Actor Analysis, Causal Modelling, Goal Trees and Means-end Diagrams, Problem Diagrams, Uncertainty Analysis using scenarios, Score Cards etc. This theoretical but powerful toolbox will help us to make the problem explicit: it will make clear, for example, the mechanisms in the system (the causal relations) and what actors want, in terms of objectives and criteria. We will also identify as many potential solutions as we can and compare them and their effects with each other using score cards.

From your experience, what challenges can be overcome using your approach to problem solving?

Stagnation in a decision-making process often occurs when stakeholders confuse the ways to reach a goal with the goal itself, or rather, confuse the ends with the means. ICT architecture, for instance, is frequently regarded as the solution rather than the tool that will help you to reach the solution. If we take, for example, the very important project of delivering worldwide accessibility to art – we see that the efforts are not focused on the essence of the service, such as who would like to receive this service, at what price, and whether or not we should make everything accessible; but rather on systems and software. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that all stakeholders – the artists, governments who support these projects, and the public who will use this service – all participate in the process and all have their own ideas and needs. In this scenario, problem solving methodologies can greatly contribute to the decision-making process.

Where did the idea for this MOOC come from? This course is a shorter version of a course here at TU Delft. On campus, the course already employs online and on-campus teaching methods. But the unique feature of this course is that it is designed and taught by professors, professionals and former students. The product of this combination provided great value to students, since it is well-matched to their needs and learning objectives. We are delighted with the results. We managed to significantly reduce the dropout rate to 0% last year. More importantly, we saw that it encouraged student participation and contributed to student satisfaction. Therefore we are more than excited to run this course on edX in an online-only version. We look forward to receiving students’ feedback on this course.

Who can benefit from this course?

The MOOC fits a broad audience – anyone who deals with problems in which more than one actor is involved. It would certainly benefit any professional who deals with complex problems that involve many actors, such as engineers, consultants, managers, policy makers, analysts, CEOs and politicians. In this MOOC we will take the consultant point of view, that is, we will teach our students how to help people to decide. These “people” could be others, or themselves.

In order to practice implementing the tools we teach, we have real life cases that students can address. One case from The Hague Centre of Strategic Studies is about how to compare European welfare states. We also have a more day-to-day case; an owner of a hamburger restaurant that wants to convey the message of high quality service to her clients. These people basically say “You students, you are learning the tools to help us out, so, help us!” These real problem owners will keep an eye on the work that the students come up with. I am sure they will contact our students if they find nice ideas that could assist them. Additionally, this course is also an excellent introduction to game theory and gamification, since both employ some of the principles that we will discuss.

Enroll in Solving Complex Problems

By Guest Post: Janine Kiers, Delft University of Technology

Photo of Alexander de HaanDr.ir.drs. Alexander de Haan is a part-time staff member at Delft University of Technology in the faculty of Technology, Policy & Management. He is an aerospace engineer (TU Delft, 1998) and a social psychologist (Leiden University, 2005). He received his Ph.D in Policy Analysis from Delft University of Technology in 2007. Previously, he worked as a project manager for Airbus and the Dutch National Aerospace Lab. Additionally, he served as a consultant to the Delft Airport Development Center. He was Director of the Delft Centre for Aviation from 2008 to 2011. He teaches several courses at bachelor and master level and supervises many students with their thesis, MBA and PhD. He successfully runs his own company for many years as a personal and group coach, analyst and consultant.

In 2013 Dr. De Haan won the Best Lecturer Award of Delft University of Technology; after having won the TPM faculty award for best lecturer twice (in 2007 and 2012) and the TPM education innovation award in 2008. In 2012 Dr. De Haan and Pauline de Heer co-authored the book “Solving Complex Problems: Professional Group Decision-Making Support in Highly Complex Situations”. In the fall of 2014 he is about to publish a book on professional and personal leadership during thesis work with co-author Elianne de Regt called “Graduation? Challenge accepted!”

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