This article explains the concept of the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), developed by George Pólya in a practical way. After reading it, you will understand the basics of this powerful Problem Solving tool.
What is the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)?
The British system thinker Peter Checkland developed the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) on the basis of 10 years of research. It’s a way to model business processes and can be used for general problem solving and managing changes in the organisation. The primary use of SSM revolves around the analysis of complex situations, with differing views on the definition of the problem. SSM can intervene in such situations by making discussion between all parties involved possible. This makes it possible to reach a consensus, in which can please all parties involved.
Peter Checkland developed this method in the nineties of the last century. He came to the conclusion that ideas from developers and users did not always match. The problem was that opinions often differed widely and developers had a tendency to use complicated jargon. With Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), Peter Checkland focused on stimulating a collective approach within an organization. This makes it possible to discuss multiple ideas and insights with one another and to take new steps in further development from here.
Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is a method to structure complex problems and to develop desirable and feasible changes within a differentiated group of people. Such a heterogeneous group can consist of employees, developers, users and customers, whereby everyone sheds a different light on a problem. It is often difficult to align all these different thinking styles. That is why Peter Checkland has explicitly designed Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) to lead a heterogeneous group through such a process, so that each participant gets the chance to structure a complex problem. In this way it is possible to implement feasible change (s).
It’s not always easy to please everyone involved with a desired solution to a problematic situation. By talking to each other, they will come to adjustments that are desirable and feasible. SSM is not a substantive organisational theory, but does lead to faster decision-making based on consensus. SSM also does not provide any framework for how a design should look; it is a search process for the best solution. It makes use of the knowledge and expertise of all who are closely involved in the problem. The core of SSM is to bridge the gap between the ‘real’ world and the conceptual world of thought of those involved.
Checkland describes SSM as a method that can be followed in 7 steps. It should be noted that it is far from decisive to actually follow each of the 7 steps. If it turns out that a proper solution has already been found after step 4, then that is fine. It is about the basis of discussion between those involved, so that different interests can be included in the concept:
Step 1 – recognising a problematic situation
In order to define the problem, it’s important to first gather a lot of information. This can be done, for example, by interviewing the people involved and finding and studying a great deal of documentation about the problem. Highlighting possible factors that influence the situation is also part of this step. Finally, it is advisable to gather all information about organisational structure and control processes and to see this in the light of the problem.
Step 2 – describing the problematic situation
Based on all information obtained from step 1, the problem situation can then be properly described and defined. Within SSM, use is often made of so-called ‘rich pictures’. These are sketches of the problematic situation, which literally creates an image. The role of the customer, the role of the problem owner (the organisation or department) and the problem solver(s) must also be examined. In addition, it is good to look at power structures within the organisation and the way in which stakeholders interact with each other and are dependent on each other.
Step 3 – formulating basic definitions
The emphasis lies on describing the ideal way in which the system should function. These so-called ‘root definitions’ give an ideal picture of relevant systems. This can be drawn from the CATWOE elements, which have also been developed by David Smyth:
The customers of an organisation; users and stakeholders of a system.
The employees within an organisation who ensure that a transformation process occurs.
The process in which input is transformed by an organisation into an output, including problem solving.
Weltanschauung / Worldview
This is the ‘bigger picture’ and considers the various stakeholders and interested parties from the environment around an organisation and the influence they can exert.
The people within an organisation who are able to make changes and decide whether a project should be started or ended.
Factual elements from the environment which can have an influence on the organisation and can impede or limit the system.
Step 4 – composing conceptual models
Conceptual models are created for each activity from the ‘root definition’ from step 3, with a briefly defined objective.
Step 5 – Comparing models and reality
The conceptual models are based on theory, but that can be a far cry from reality. That’s why it’s wise to see how much it corresponds with the ‘real’ world. A gap analysis offers the solution whether or not there is a gap between the models and reality. In the group process, moreover, all the different views on reality can become clear.
Step 6 – defining changes
It’s not always necessary to implement changes in the solution. If this is the case, then these changes must be defined and checked whether or not they are feasible.
Step 7 – taking action
It’s necessary to take action to improve the problematic situation. The changes from step 6 will be implemented in the organisation. If problems occur, the cycle starts again at the first stage. Thus, SSM has an iterative cycle.
In order to manage Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) in the right direction, it is important that the entire process is controlled by someone. Usually this participatory role is carried out by the so-called facilitator. He is not only responsible for bringing the heterogeneous group members into contact with each other. He must also be familiar with Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and be able to encourage all participants to share their knowledge with the others. In addition, it is his role to ensure a good space, where one can enter into discussions in a brainstorming session. The use of flipcharts is desirable. It is also the task of the facilitator to prepare a plan in advance for going through (all) steps. Depending on the problem, a few hours to a few days can be reserved for this. In addition, time must be reserved to carry out the practical implementation of each step. Ultimately it is all about a feasible and realistic result, with which all participants are satisfied.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Is the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) applicable in your personal or professional environment? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for solving problems
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Checkland, P., & Poulter, J. (2006). Learning for action: a short definitive account of soft systems methodology and its use, for practitioners, teachers and students. John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
- Checkland, P. (2000). Soft systems methodology: a thirty year retrospective. Systems research and behavioral science, 17(S1), S11-S58.
- Checkland, P., Scholes, J., & Checkland, P. (1990). Soft systems methodology in action (Vol. 7). Chichester: Wiley.
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