Soft Systems Methodology As A Complex Phenomenon

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Peter Checkland and coworkers designed a method of inquiry called Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). They realized problems associated with human activity tend to be vague, hard to describe, are complex, and the only way to approach them is to involve people in a conversation. To me, SSM is a set of principles for dialogue, rather than a prescriptive method, which means one may explore variations enriching the process of inquiry.

What I aim to do is explore the social complexity of the context within which SSM is used, which adds significant complexity, but, would suggest it may enrich its use in practice.

As the approach evolved, the focus shifted to communication and collective learning, with the understanding there is no beginning or endpoint to it. I accept Wenger’s position that in general learning means engaging in communication and relationships, and by participating in that, we constantly unconsciously adjust what we know. Hence, we learn by doing, and doing means socially interacting with others.

Wenger’s communities of practice are collectives interacting towards a shared outcome, within which we act, work out relationships, invent ways of doing things, interpret situations, produce artifacts and symbols, resolve conflicts, etc. Such groups over time capture knowledge about how to act and behave within them, belonging to them means knowing enough to be able to competently participate without knowing everything, and that knowledge shapes the image that we and others have of ourselves and the groups we belong to. Participation in groups therefore means both acting and belonging, which shapes what we do, who we are, and how we interpret what we are doing, and by interacting we constantly change and adapt, in other words learn new ways of acting and doing.

What this argues for is what Suchman calls organizations as conversations, and learning as adapting to those conversations, as we interpret and attach meaning to how they unfold.  By talking to each other we learn from each other, get a sense of who we are, what we are doing, what we should be doing, how to do it, and along the way we agree, disagree, come into conflict, manipulate, include, exclude, stigmatize, etc. Such a perspective implies one cannot know in advance what will happen when we interact. It shifts the emphasis from what we should do to what we are doing, and the patterns of behavior that emerge from it, and recognizes the importance of diversity as seedbed for innovation.

To Checkland, all inquiry into problems begin when humans try to take purposeful action, and to do so we must talk to each other. Describing the purpose is problematic, since there are always multiple perspectives of both the problem situation, and what may be done about it.  SSM therefore begins by finding out more about why some people consider a situation problematic, then creates conceptual models of activities that contribute towards that situation, and the models then serve to stimulate a dialogue about what could improve the situation, and how to manage conflicts of interest that need to be overcome to act.

The soft systems problems Checkland talks about is much more complex than he originally envisaged. They are more likely to be interlinked problems, interact with misunderstandings, different perspectives, beliefs, etc., of different groups of people and requiring people thinking differently to create a common reality. There is no right perspective of the problem situation, perspectives differ about the problem and how to solve it, problems are connected to other problems, information is missing or incomplete, there are many conflicting values, ideological and cultural constraints, political constraints, economic constraints, different rationalities of thinking, many possible points of intervention, it is difficult to predict the consequences of acting, things are uncertain and ambiguous, there is resistance to change, and the problem solvers are out of contact with the problem situation and possible solutions. In other words, what you have is Horn’s social messes, from which the only way out is dialogue during which different people with different perspectives question their underlying beliefs and assumptions.

Checkland recommends drawing pictures of what emerges from conversations around the problem space, and adjusting them based on feedback. The advantage of telling the story as pictures is it allows common themes to emerge from alternative perspectives of how people see and experience the problem situation without imposing a structure on it, which makes the problem situation more manageable. A rich picture therefore represents a situation, not the problem.

I understand Checkland’s analysis 1,2, and 3 as conversation guided by asking about who owns the problem, its social and political dimensions, and who has the power to allow change to proceed or to prevent it. One may argue it resembles Churchman’s idea of inquiry as a social process.

There are stakeholders, or what Churchman calls clients, and Checkland problem owners, owning the problem situation, who may want it changed, and may be better or worse off if it does. There is a measure by which they know if the situation improved, but that assumes a problem and outcome that can be defined, which is not necessarily the case with social messes. Perhaps it would be more accurate to talk about perspectives of improving the current situation. Churchman also explicitly includes a value dimension which means considering not only those invited to participate, but also those excluded and affected by what happens, which opens the conversation to the issues of participation and voice. With social messes there are always multiple clients which means many different wants and needs and numerous perspectives about what could be considered betterment.

Churchman also talks about a planning role in inquiry, which Checkland clearly assumes, but does not make explicit, which is someone with expertise that may facilitate the conversation, and the way it facilitates must provide some sort of guarantee that things will improve.

By facilitating, the planner takes on a role that places it in a specific place in the social configuration in terms of power and expectations as Mowles pointed out, which ought to be part of the conversation. Ultimately, whether it be in a structured or unstructured way, a planner is expected to facilitate change for the better, irrespective of whether one do or don’t know what and how that should happen. It matters who expects this, who contracts and what the terms of the contract are. That is what planners are rewarded for. The planner always brings its own assumptions and perspectives into the conversation which cannot be avoided, and should be very aware of the fact that it is part of the conversation and how it influences it.

By bringing in a value component, for Churchman the question becomes who ought to plan, which in messes means there are no experts, and only those who are planned for can know what needs to be done, which brings the issue of participation and voice into play. He also asked the question how can the planner guarantee that it is making the right plan and that the outcome will make things better?  There can be no guarantee in complex systems, but one may reduce risk by consulting with the people affected by planning and change about what it is they do, how they perceive that, and their perspective about what would happen if things change.

To Checkland, models help structure the conversation around the problem space, which is used to explore what activities may accomplish one’s objectives. At a next level, one considers who benefits or loses from one’s actions, who acts, what is transformed, from which perspective, who can prevent change, and within what environment (the CATWOE mnemonic). Do the action meet their targets, and does it do so efficiently.

Strümpfer argues you can use what people know about organizations to build shared mindsets, which facilitates collective action. To get there requires multiple conversations designed as a process of inquiry towards a shared understanding, and commitment to action. People have various perspectives of what happens in organizations, which can be used to gain insight in it and the problem space.

We are naturally interrelated and constantly interact, which adjusts our understanding incrementally. SSM in effect structures those interactions more formally to surface issues we struggle with, which, hopefully, may bring about beneficial change. The problem space is therefore an integral part of someone’s daily life, and the intervention just another way of coping with it. By engaging with the situation, and trialing different ways of intervening in it, one may change the situation, without knowing in advance what the outcome may be. In other words, SSM is a different approach to sensemaking.

Acting towards a common goal is an emergent property of complex social relationships. As the relationships unfold, knowledge is added, including values and different perspectives, which stimulates learning, creativity, and change. One could argue SSM is aligned with such a perspective, although not explicitly so.

SSM does not explicitly address the complexity of implementation. It implies change can be negotiated, which means dialogue, which must be more than means-ends conversations, but, as Pressman and Wildavsky pointed out, acting in complex social situations involving many actors is never simple. Planning is the easy part, acting is difficult, and because of a constantly shifting social space, the context in which plans were made quickly becomes obsolete. It means consciously paying more attention to how we communicate and what we are already doing, and via that bring forward some of the assumptions and perspectives we have and how that is different from those of others, and by doing so, possibly changing what we believe in and consequently what we do.

Taking such an approach, one cannot know ahead of time what will change and how, but if one goes through the process collectively, it is possible to agree on setting goals in Vickers’ sense and working towards that as part of an on-going process of conversation and meaning making.

In conclusion, SSM has many hidden social dimensions associated with it, which makes the interactions by which it sets out what it wants to achieve complex. Shaw argues conversations about change can be totally unstructured, but I would argue they need to be both structured and unstructured, and that SSM is useful for creating such structure, but perhaps in an abridged form.