Morphological Analysis – A problem solving method by an astrophysicist who discovered dark matter

 In Problem Solving

Morphological analysis is simply an ordered way of looking at things.

~Fritz Zwicky

Morphological analysis is invented by Fritz Zwicky, a Swedish astrophysicist who used the morphological analysis to solve a lot of wicked aerospace and astronomical problems. He used it to develop jet and rocket propulsion systems, in the classification of the astrophysical object, and other complex aspects like legal aspect of colonizing space.

Morphological analysis is all about breaking a seemingly complex thing into different fundamental units, eliminating inconsistencies, and then creating a link between remaining units to solve a problem.

If you are someone who has dismantled toys in childhood, this method is for you. You will get a chance to dismantle product/process without even physically dismantling them. And the fun is going to be almost same.

Why is General Morphological Analysis better than Mathematical Modeling?

In wicked problems where there are multiple governing factors, using a mathematical model which you have created by breaking the problem into different components and dropping trivial components, fails. The trivial components which were considered insignificant during the analysis become significant and the model collapses.

General Morphological Analysis (GMA), on the other hands, is a sound method to deal with such wicked non-quantifiable problems. Every component of a problem gets considered and thoroughly investigated. In essence, GMA turns a mess into structured problems.

One of the greatest mistakes that can be made when dealing with a mess is to carve off part of the mess, treat it as a problem and then solve it as a puzzle — ignoring its links with other aspects of the mess.

~~Michael Pidd

 Applications of General Morphological Analysis

The applications of GMA are far wider. From engineering design to policy analysis, from product design to scenario development, the morphological analysis could be used. When used as brainstorming technique, it could help in idea generation phase and can help in new patent ideas, product ideas, and the like.

Zwicky used it to solve general problems of astronomy — Observation of celestial phenomena, designing a new telescope, and in engineering design to develop propulsion systems. In recent times researchers have been found using the method in organization design and transformation, and scenario modeling.

William J. Dartnall of the University of Technology Sydney used GMA for innovative mechanical design.  Álvarez & Ritchey in their research article, Applications of General Morphological Analysis, give numerous examples from 80 published of applications of GMA.

How to Perform Morphological Analysis?

We can divide the entire morphological analysis into 4 different steps which are as follows:

Problem (identifying and defining the parameters)

The morphological analysis investigates all the possible set of parameters a wicked problem. Hence, the first step is defining the wicked problem in a clear and concise manner and breaking it down into different parameters it has and possible values of those parameters.

Constructing the Zwicky Box

The next step involves the construction of an n-dimensional matrix. Numbers of columns in the matrix are equal to the number of parameters of a wicked problem. Cells under each column contain the value of a parameter.

For example, consider a publisher contemplating various parameters before publishing a book. Let’s say his problem complex has five parameter bind type, cover type, size, paper color, and interior which have 3,3,2,2,2 values respectively. This will lead to a Zwicky box of the below type having 3*3*2*2*2=72 cells with each cell having 5 parameters — one value from each column. For example, Saddle Stich, digest, hardcover, colored, cream.

Constructing the Zwicky Box

Cross Consistency Assessment

This is the vital step of the GMA. CCA helps you reduce the pairs of combination in a Zwicky Box which are inconsistent. For example, in our case, the combinations where colored and paperbacks are appearing together and where spiral and paperback are appearing together could be nixed from the final set of analysis. CCA can reduce a Zwicky Box to 90% or even in some problem complex to 99%. In essence, CCA acts as a garbage detector in a Zwicky Box.

There are three principal types of inconsistencies involved in the cross-consistency assessment: purely logical contradictions (i.e. “contradictions in terms”); empirical constraints (i.e. relationships judged to be highly improbable or implausible on practical, empirical grounds), and normative constraints (although these must be used with great care, and clearly designated as such).


After you have reduced the Zwicky Box to consistent combinations, you move ahead with the final step of the analysis where you lock a particular variable(input) under a parameter and find the number of combination that exists.

Constructing the Zwicky Box

For example, in our problem, we locked paperback and asked Zwicky Box to help us find possible combinations. The blue cells are corresponding outputs. You can even have multiple inputs. For example, in Zwicky Box (2) we locked Paperback, white.

Constructing the Zwicky BoxConsider exploring this research paper where how Norris Brothers’ used the GMA to design historical Bluebird K4 boat, and the record-breaking Bluebird CN7 car and Bluebird K7 hydroplane.

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