Soft Systems Methodology

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Method category: 
Intent or purpose: 
To create an action program to deal with a problem
Used as component of: 
Soft systems Methodology is used to deal with complext systems, especially where stakeholders do not agree about what the problem is.
Types of Participants: 
Stakeholder and those responsible for implementing the solution.
Recommended size of group: 
Level of Difficulty to Facilitate: 
Not set

The 7-stage description

1 The problem situation unstructured
The problem situation is first experienced, as it is, by the researcher. That is, the researcher makes as few presumptions about the nature of the situation as possible.

2 The problem situation expressed
In this step the researcher develops a detailed description, a "rich picture", of the situation within which the problem occurs. This is most often done diagrammatically.

Throughout the 7 stages, both and logic and the culture of the situation are taken into account. These twin streams of enquiry, logic and culture, are incorporated into the rich picture.

Checkland puts it this way. In addition to the logic of the situation, the rich picture also tries to capture the relationships, the value judgments people make, and the "feel" of the situation.

3 Root definitions of relevant systems
Now the "root definitions", the essence of the relevant systems, are defined.

For the logical analysis, Checkland provides the mnemonic CATWOE as a checklist for ensuring that the important features of the root definitions are included:

the Customers...................who are system beneficiaries
the Actors......................who transform inputs to outputs
the Transformation..............from inputs into outputs
the Weltanschauung..............the relevant world views
the Owner.......................the persons with power of veto
the Environmental constraints...that need to be considered

The "transformation" element is one of the features that signal this as a "systems" approach.

The cultural analysis has three parts:

* A role analysis, focusing on the intervention itself. This seeks to identify the client, the would-be problem solver (the researcher), and the problem owner (roughly, stakeholders). In the terms that we used in earlier sessions you could think of this as the diagnostic part of entry and contracting.

* A social system analysis. This identifies, for the problem situation, three sets of elements: roles, norms, and values.

* A political system analysis. This identifies the use of power in the problem situation.

4 Making and testing conceptual models
The researcher now draws upon her knowledge of systems concepts and models. She develops descriptions, in system terms, of how the relevant parts of the situation might ideally function.

One of the important questions here is: ideals from whose point of view? If you adopt those who pay you as your client, you may well just help the organisation exploit its members more effectively. If you adopt everyone in the system as a client, you will avoid this problem. But perhaps people outside the system will bear some of the cost of this. Here, as elsewhere, a careful identification of stakeholders can make a large difference to the outcomes.

5 Comparing conceptual models with reality
The purpose is not to implement the conceptual models. Rather, it is so that models and reality can be compared and contrasted. The differences can be used as the basis for a discussion: how the relevant systems work, how they might work, and what the implication of that might be.

6 Identify feasible and desirable changes
From the discussion at step 5, certain possible changes are identified. They are likely to vary in desirability and feasibility:

desirable: is it technically an improvement?

feasible: especially, does it fit the culture?

7 Action to improve the problem situation
The most desirable and feasible changes identified at step 6 are now put into practice.

How flexible is the process?: 
Follow-Up Required: 
implementation of the plan
Derived from: 
This was taken from Bob Dick's website
1. Checkland, P. (1981) Systems thinking, systems practice. Chichester: Wiley. 2. Checkland, P. (1992) From framework through experience to learning: the essential nature of action research. In C.S. Bruce and A.N. Russell, Transforming tomorrow today: Proceedings of the Second World Congress on Action Learning. Brisbane: Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management Association. There is also a strong and explicit action research flavour in his more recent book, especially pages 18-28, and Chapter 6: Checkland, P., and Holwell, S. (1998) Information, systems, and information systems: making sense of the field. Chichester, UK: Wiley. 3. This may be why it has come under fire for maintaining the status quo. Similar criticisms are commonly offered to systems-based approaches generally. I don't think the criticisms are necessarily justified. It depends who you regard as the client, and how you define the goals. 4. Checkland, P. and Scholes, J. (1991) Soft systems methodology in action. Chichester: Wiley. 5. Dick, B. (2002) Soft systems methodology. Session 13 of Areol - action research and evaluation on line. URL