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What is Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)?

Posted by Adrian M.

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Categories: General, Solution Assessment and Validation (BABOK KA)


Soft systems methodology (SSM) is a structured approach to thinking, problem solving, and systems analysis that was developed to address very complex or soft (ill-defined) problems where there are divergent views about the very definition of the problem to be solved.

In the worlds of Peter Checkland, the creator of the soft systems methodology:

“Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is a cyclic learning system which uses models of human activity to explore with the actors in the real world problem situation, their perceptions of that situation and their readiness to decide upon purposeful action which accommodates different actor’s perceptions, judgments and values.”

SSM technique works by acknowledging that complex real-world problems cannot be easily defined in terms of clear or measurable dimensions (hard definitions).  A variety of perspectives, conflicting goals, divergent ideas, and subjective interpretations require a “soft”-er approach to the messy problem.

Some of the key principles and of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) include:

  • Human-Centric Approach - SSM is designed to handle problems that involve human interactions, social structures, and subjective perceptions by  emphasizing understanding people's viewpoints, beliefs, and concerns.
  • Iterative Process - SSM encourages an iterative approach, where models and solutions are refined based on feedback and ongoing learning. 
  • Problem Structuring - SSM helps structure complex problems in a way that makes them more manageable by enabling stakeholders to identify the root causes of issues and potential areas for intervention.
  • Holistic Perspective - SSM considers a variety of viewpoints and takes a holistic view of the problem situation by recognizing that a problem cannot be fully understood by only looking at the individual parts..
  • Collaborative Approach - SSM involves collaboration among stakeholders with diverse perspectives by encouraging dialogue, shared understanding, and joint problem-solving.

While variations exist in the approach to soft systems management, the following 7 steps are generally considered the foundation of the SSM Process:

  • SSM Step 1 - Appreciate the problem situation
    • Identify the problem situation and the various stakeholder perspectives
  • SSM Step 2 - Describe the problem
    • Create a "Rich Picture" that visually represents the problem context
  • SSM Step 3 - Formulate root definitions
    • Identify the relevant systems of interest within the problem domain.
    • Develop a root definition for each system
  • SSM Step 4 - Build conceptual models
    • Develop conceptual models for each system using diagrams
    • Illustrate the components, interactions, and processes of each system
  • SSM Step 5 - Compare models with real world
    • Compare the constructed models with the real-world situation
    • Identify discrepancies, contradictions, and areas of concern between the models and the reality
  • SSM Step 6 - Define possible changes
    • Identify potential changes that could address the defined discrepancies
    • Consider changes that are technically feasible and align with stakeholder interests
  • SSM Step 7 - Recommend actions
    • Develop action plans for implementing the selected changes
    • Monitor the implementation process and learn from the outcomes to refine the the solution

Let’s finish the overview of the soft systems methodology by focusing introducing three key concepts:

  • Rich Pictures - Visual presentations of a complex system highlighting the key considerations of the problem to be solved, showing the complexity and various perspectives of the situation. The “rich picture” can include all the necessary elements of the complex domain including: stakeholders, activities, issues, relationships, context, etc.
  • Root Definitions - In SSM, the root definition is a concise description of the system which names the system in a structured way.
  • CATWOE - Is a set of concerns which when used properly help define the problem domain and to express the “root definition” in terms of: Customers, Actors, Transformation Process, Worldview, Owner, and Environment Constraints.  The “root definition” can be express as follows: “A system owned by [OWNERS], where [ACTORS] perform [TRANSFORMATION] on behalf of [CUSTOMERS] because [WORLDVIEW], but limited by [ENVIRONMENT].”



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