Soft systems methodology

Description

Peter Checkland, the primary exponent of soft systems methodology, recently described it as

an organized, flexible process for dealing with situations which someone sees as problematical, situations which call for action to be taken to improve them, to make them more acceptable, less full of tensions and unanswered questions. The ‘process’ referred to is an organized process of thinking your way to taking sensible ‘action to improve’ the situation; and, finally, it is a process based on a particular body of ideas, namely system ideas. (Checkland and Poulter 2006:4)

It is usually implemented in groups. The contributions of expert facilitators can be beneficial, but are not essential once participants understand the techniques. It is also possible that ‘a researcher can be used as an intermediary, interviewing people and ensuring that each stakeholder is exposed to other perspectives’ (McDonald et al. 2005:39–40).

The core of the method is to integrate judgments by treating purposeful action as a system, an adaptive whole. Changing one part of the system (initiating one course of action) will create changes elsewhere in the system. What particularly distinguishes the approach is that it reveals and deals explicitly with the potentially differing world views of the participants, examining how these world views (Weltanschauung) underlie their judgments. Soft systems methodology seeks accommodation among different, sometimes conflicting, world views.

The key characteristics and seven implementation stages of soft systems methodology are listed below. Checkland and other practitioners emphasise, however, that it is not a mechanical, linear process. Rather, it is inherently iterative. It moves from finding out about a problematic situation to taking action in the situation, and does so by carrying out some organised, explicit systems thinking about the real world:

  1. Workshop participants express their perceptions of the problematical situation in an unstructured form.

  2. They then develop a ‘rich picture’, a visual representation of the situation in which people find themselves. This generally takes the form of drawings and connecting lines on sheets of paper, providing a kind of a map of the real world and its challenges.

  3. Some human activity systems relevant to the situation are carefully named in ‘root definitions’. The aim is to produce common understanding and agreement among participants with respect to each system. These explicitly name a number of features of the relevant systems, and test them, using the acronym CATWOE, standing for customers, actors, transformation process, world view, owners and environmental constraints, as follows:

    • customers: those who might be helped or harmed by action

    • actors: those who could be involved in making the system work

    • transformation process: identifying the ‘raw material’ that the system will transform into ‘end products’

    • world view: the world view underlying people’s desire to create the transformation

    • owners: those with the power to stop the system from working

    • environmental constraints: the things that have to be taken as given.

    Each root definition makes plain its world view—that is, the point of view from which the (human activity) system is described, since one person’s ‘terrorist’ is another’s ‘freedom fighter’ (the example Checkland uses most frequently).

  4. Conceptual models of the systems named in the root definitions are built. They are models of purposeful activity considered relevant to debate and argument about the problematical situation. They are not at this stage thought of as practical designs. They usually take the form of a map of the activities needed to make the system operational. Activities are listed and their relationships made explicit.

  5. The debate about the situation is structured by comparing models with perceptions of the real world: the initial rich pictures. The aim of the debate is to find some possible changes that meet two criteria: systemically desirable and culturally feasible in the particular situation in question.

  6. An action plan is developed.

  7. The action plan is implemented (adapted from Checkland and Scholes 1999; Midgley 2000).

Directly applying these seven steps is known as ‘mode one’ of soft systems methodology. ‘Mode two’, in contrast, is the application of the general idea of the methodology—namely, comparing models of the future with participants’ understanding of the current situation, without necessarily following the seven steps. The principles are internalised, as Checkland and Scholes (1999) put it, leaving the practitioner free to use any methods that seem appropriate. The application of mode two has led to some confusion as to just what is meant by soft systems methodology (Holwell 2000).

Soft systems methodology is a mature, well-tested dialogue method that has been applied in many ways in many settings. It is not, as some have claimed, a simple substitution of objectivity with subjectivity in systems thinking. Rather, as Midgley clarifies, ‘the emphasis is on inter-subjectivity: the acceptance of multiple worldviews and the evolution of mutual understanding through debate’ (Midgley 2003:vol. 1, p. xxxvii, emphasis in original).

Soft systems methodology is particularly useful when a need exists to develop realistic action plans to address complex (social) situations in which people are confused about, or hold differing views about, the nature and origins of the problem, how it can be addressed and what goals are to be worked towards. The group process helps people to attain a shared judgment that can be the basis for action to overcome the problematical situation.

Example of its use in research integration

Security: determining the most appropriate counselling model for community agencies’ responses to disaster in Northern England

What was the context for the integration?

A key aspect of responding to large-scale disasters is synchronised activity between many different agencies, but the necessary collaborations are difficult to develop, maintain and implement. The human service agencies of a county in Northern England were concerned that, in the event of a disaster, they would not be able to engage in effective multi-agency activity to provide counselling services to the affected populations. A working party had been meeting for 18 months attempting, without success, to develop a multi-agency intervention plan. The barriers to achieving their goal were the complexity of the task and the differences of opinion as to the most appropriate model to use: one based on professional counselling services versus one based on volunteer counsellors’ contributions (Gregory and Midgley 2000).

What was the integration aiming to achieve and who was intended to benefit?

Two consultants were invited to assist, and decided that soft systems methodology would be helpful as the need existed ‘to structure the problems and facilitate debate’, to develop models of inter-agency collaboration and to integrate the conflicting visions as to how collaboration could be realised.

What was being integrated?

Representatives from 19 agencies concerned about providing counselling services in the event of a disaster participated in this multi-agency activity, including health authorities, the ambulance service, the fire brigade, police, the Police Welfare Service, Victim Support, CRUSE (a voluntary organisation offering bereavement counselling), the Samaritans, a local Association of Counsellors, the Emergency Psychological Service, the Council of Churches, university departments, Emergency Planning (County Council) and Social Services (County Council).

Who did the integration and how was it undertaken?

As mentioned above, representatives from 19 agencies concerned about providing counselling services in the event of a disaster were involved, meeting in three blocks of two days each, during a one-month period. The consultant facilitators used soft systems methodology’s mode one, following the seven steps with some small modifications. They began with an exercise to explore the nature of a disaster and then moved on to produce ‘rich pictures’. At this stage in the process, participants were not positive about where it was leading, as they had brought to light many difficult and interrelated problems, with no solutions being apparent.

In the next step, participants were asked to identify the systems that would be needed to establish and implement the multi-agency counselling network if a disaster occurred. Since many were identified, they were asked to select the most important and to explore them in more detail using the CATWOE approach described above (although root definitions were not developed). The next step (a departure from the standard mode one approach) was to engage in whole-system modelling, after which detailed conceptual modelling was done of six of the systems identified. More conceptual modelling was not possible owing to time constraints. In this way, participants were assisted to reach accommodation of their differing visions for how the agencies could collaborate in the event of a disaster. An action plan was developed and used as the basis of an application for funding to establish the multi-agency network.

What was the outcome of the integration?

The evaluation of the process addressed participants’ learning from the soft systems methodology process and the contents of the model that had been developed. Participants were positive about the process and indicated that they had learned a lot about the needs and priorities of the various agencies, and about the soft systems methodology itself. With respect to the contents of the model, although no disasters had occurred in the county within the two years after the development of the model, one did occur in a neighbouring county. Counselling support was provided to the people in that area in an effective and timely manner—a good test of the arrangements that had been developed through the soft systems methodology exercise.

Commentary

Soft systems methodology is a less structured dialogue method than many others. Especially in its ‘mode two’, it is best seen as a process, an approach and a perspective, as well as a method. The example illustrated this in its flexible application of the standard six CATWOE steps.

It focuses on action within a systems perspective. The purposeful action analysed is a system itself interacting with other systems.

A core issue for this method is developing participants’ understanding of multiple world views and identifying how to accommodate them. This is in contrast, for example, with strategic assumption surfacing and testing, which tries to change world views or produce a new shared one among participants.

Also significant is the method’s focus on developing agreed action plans and implementing them, rather than concluding the process with a set of integrated judgments (for example, through a consensus development panel’s deliberations) where the dialogue itself (rather than follow-up action) is a valued outcome.

We have not been able to identify a case example that shows soft systems methodology being used for research integration but are confident that it has real potential for this. For example, the method could be used by a team of researchers and natural resource management planners wishing to develop an evidence-based action plan to deal with a complex issue such as the withdrawal of irrigation rights from farmers in a small rural community. The differing knowledge, world views and perspectives held by these actors would need to be integrated to produce shared judgments of the likely impacts and trade-offs inherent in any action plan that they would develop.

Origins and genealogy

Checkland and, later, other systems scholars and practitioners developed soft systems methodology as a response to the limitations that they saw in the reductionist approaches of the natural sciences when these were applied to complex social situations. The dominant systems thinking approach at the time (the 1970s) was the ‘hard’ paradigm of systems engineering: defining the system of concern, defining the system’s objectives, then engineering the system to meet those objectives (Checkland 1985). Soft systems methodology, in contrast, was developed ‘because the methodology of systems engineering, based on defining goals or objectives, simply did not work when applied to messy, ill-structured, real-world problems. The inability to define objectives, or to decide whose were most important, was usually part of the problem’ (Checkland 1985:763). Soft systems methodology was designed to overcome these limitations.

Further reading on soft systems methodology

Checkland, P. 1981, Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, J. Wiley, Chichester, Sussex.

Checkland, P. and 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, Hoboken, NJ.

Checkland, P. and Scholes, J. 1999, Soft Systems Methodology in Action, Wiley, New York.

Midgley, G. 2000, Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, methodology, and practice, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.