phases handling process of complex societal problems and issues


Compram method (DeTombe, 1994)


Handling Space


“The handling space is a metaphor, a mental construct, for the space where interventions of the problem will be searched for that might lead in the direction of the desired situation[1]. The handling space limits the space in which, and to what extent, the problem can be changed. “


“The handling space is narrowed by the constraints. In changing complex interdisciplinary societal problems one has to take many constraints into account.  To be able to indicate the different range of possibilities there are to change the problem, we distinguish different levels and different kinds of constraints.

We distinguish four levels of constraints. The first level is the most restrictive; the fourth level is the most permissive.

At the first level of constraints the interventions of the problem will be searched for within the current situation. This is the most restricted level of constraints, in principle the whole situation remains as it is, only relatively small changes within the existing situation are allowed. This idea comes close to what is called 'muddling through'. At societal level this includes new laws, a better infrastructure and changes in pension for the elderly. Most problems are handled on this level.

The second level of constraints allows some more changes in the contemporary situation, however not too many, but the changes can be greater. There is more space to handle the problem and there are more possibilities to change.

The third level of constraints broadens the possibilities as wide as can be, but still within the 'normal' possibilities of mankind and nature. On societal level these involves fundamental changes in organizations, in politics and even in the way people think, hope and believe. This can be a totally new form of society[2].

The fourth level of constraints abandons the constraints of human possibilities and escapes into fantasy. This level can no longer be fruitfully implemented, at the most it can be used for 'unfreezing'[3] people in the problem handling process.  The distinction between level one, two and three is gradual. From changes within the existing situation (level one) to major changes of the situation (level two) to a whole new approach of living (level three).  The distinction between the first three levels and the fourth level is qualitative. The fourth level is quite different. The levels of constraint go from realistic (level one to three) to unrealistic (level four).”


[1]     The desired situation can, for instance, be reorganization of the institute or diminishing the discharge of chemical plants.

[2]     See for instance the situation in France at the time of the revolution of 1789.

[3]     Unfreezing means inviting people to include, as an experience of thought, a higher level of constraints. This is mostly the third or the fourth level. This can be done in order to stimulate people to think about quite new situations to realize that the present situation is also constructed by people and as a consequence is not  restricted beforehand. This is done in the hope that people come up with quite new and creative ideas for changing the problem.


Prof. Dr. Dorien J. DeTombe
Founder and Chair International - , Euro - , West-Euro- & Dutch Operational Research Research Group Methodology of Societal Complexity
Sichuan University, Chengdu, P.R. China
Chair International Research Society on Methodology of Societal Complexity
多莉恩·德通教授 华人民共和国四川省成都市 一环南路一段24 四川大学
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, EuropeTel: +31 20 6927526