Soft systems methodology (SSM) was born out of the recognition that the real world is complex and messy primarily because we, human beings, inhabit it. Each of us will have a different perception of the same situation. That perception will be based upon concepts and beliefs we hold in our head – a mental model(s) that we use to make judgments about reality (worldview). If these concepts that form the mental models could be explicit rather than implicit, they could be used to compare against what was observed allowing each observer to defend their judgment. They may well disagree with the respective merits of their models, but the argument can now be carried out on a more rational and defendable basis. It is the two words “rational” and “defendable” that are important and form the basis of the SSM.
Initial work involves interviews and meetings to gain an understanding of the problem situation, which is represented by the use of ‘rich pictures’. Systems thinking, which includes concepts of hierarchy, communication, control and emergent properties, is then used to identify ‘relevant systems’ which may provide useful insights. These relevant systems are logically defined by constructing ‘root definitions’ which are then used to generate ‘conceptual models’ of the selected systems. Different conceptual models representing different viewpoints are then used as the basis of debate, which through an ‘appreciative process’ can lead to feasible and desirable change and then to action.
When deriving a ‘root definition’, SSM advocates a CATWOE approach to list the perspectives of a situation that should be considered – customers, actors, transformation process, worldview, owners, environmental constraints. By considering these various perspectives and standpoints, it offers an ethical framework for a problem-solving approach.
Rich pictures are a powerful visual approach of presenting complex messy problems in an unstructured manner so that we are not influenced by the existing structure of the system. Rich pictures help us depict a complex scenario holistically using natural tools such as pictures, words, symbols, etc. rather than using any formal structured approach so that we are able to depict our own perceptions and assumptions in images. We can use all the creative approaches at our disposal to develop a rich picture, such as pictorial symbols, keywords, cartoons, sketches and symbols.
A root definition is a statement that concisely describes a system of interest. It is usually a single sentence which includes all the key elements of the system. Root definitions can be:
- Activity-based: a system to deliver an operational information system to support purchasing decisions against environmental criteria or
- Issue-based: a system to build stakeholding of a sceptical staff for an information system designed to aid environmental decision making.
What is important to remember is that the root definition is not an attempt to describe some real, existing system but rather an attempt to learn about a complex situation to make changes.
Various mnemonics have been suggested to help the process of formulating a root definition and check that all the elements are present. One such mnemonic is CATWOE which identifies the key elements as:
Customer: Who are the clients, beneficiaries, victims (of the system)?
Actors: Who conducts the activities in the system?
Transformation: What specified elements are changed by the system (i.e. how are inputs transformed into outputs)?
World view: What is the thinking that justifies the transformation?
Owners: Who can stop this activity or demolish the system?
Environment: What constraints will hinder the activities of the system?
CATWOE is a useful tool for expanding our thinking about a problem or situation before providing a solution. By analysing the CATWOE factors that are influencing an issue of concern, we can broaden our perspective and begin to see the issue from many angles.
Ingram, H. (2000). Using soft systems methodology to manage hotels: a case study. Managing service Quality, 10(1), 6 –9.
This article discusses Soft Systems Methodology and its application in managing operations of a hotel. This article will help you develop a deeper insight on how a systems approach is applied practically.
Monk. A. & Howard, S. (1998). The Rich Picture: A Tool for Reasoning About Work Context. Interactions.
This document will help you understand how to develop rich pictures to describe your own problem situation.
Mehregan, R., Hosseinzadeh, M., & Kazemi, A. (2012). An application of Soft System Methodology. Procedia –Social and Behavioural Sciences, 41, 426 –433.
This article is a step by step application of Soft System methodology in solving practical problem in a university setting. You will learn how to apply Soft Systems Tools such as Rich Picture, CATWOE and Root definition.
LancasterManagement. (2012). Peter Checkland on the origins of SSM. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA2i1n-o9L0
This video by Checkland, the founder of Soft Systems Methodology, is a very good explanation of the needs of the Soft Systems approach across all organisations.
Please view this series of 8 short videos created by OpenLearn from the Open University, published on YouTube (2012).
This series of 8 videos demonstrates the fact that rich pictures have been part of human evolution and have played important role in tapping our creative potential to express ourselves and our understanding of surrounding environment.