Robert N. Phillips
CEO, Lasotell Pty Ltd.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

In this final article, I look at the “what is in it for me” perspective to encourage you to study and apply Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) in the day-to-day workplace (and in life in general).

The important messages from the previous SSM articles in this series are

  • Each person’s interpretation of the world and his or her internal model of how things work are based on the sum of that person’s experiences.
  • Through common use, the word system has become seriously deficient for identifying what is supposed to be a whole, stand-alone entity.
  • A new term, holon, is defined as a whole entity that has a layered/hierarchical structure that yields emergent properties at each layer and is supported by communication and control components that allow it to adapt appropriately to changes in the environment.
  • Holons of sets of purposeful human activities are created for comparison with a perceived problem situation to learn about that situation and to derive a list of desirable and feasible changes for modifying the real-world situation.

Dealing effectively with messy, real-world problems requires

  • embracing multi-factorial problems (meaning, there are so many contributing factors that mentally embracing the whole scope of the situation is very difficult and sometimes impossible)
  • thinking on several levels at a time
  • negating our habit of creating imperfect and imprecise internal models of how things work
  • dealing with the human element; the really messy bit

Here is an interesting reality check: If messy problems involve human beings, are information systems about machine-based or human-based systems? Peter Checkland (Wiley 2000) argues for the latter because machines merely produce data but human beings assign meaning to the data, converting it into information. For example, a clock tells you the time, but only you decide if there is time for coffee.

SSM addresses the above requirements because, fundamentally, it is the study of the thought and decision-making processes and their application to messy, real-world problem situations. SSM shows you how to embrace the whole problem situation, which makes the methodology truly systemic, and to systematically investigate (elucidate, think about, and propose) changes for the real-world situation.

SSM shows you how to address the scope of a problem situation by appreciating and managing the always greater number of factors present in human- versus machine-based systems. The greatest number of factors arises from the individuals in the problem situation because they each have their own internal model of how the system works, as well as clear-cut views of what does or does not work. Making successful change in human-based systems demands taking all these factors into account. The systematic approach allows you to address these factors initially as independent categories. Analysis one, two, and three and interviewing as many people as is sensible are ways of embracing the majority of these factors. Ultimately, these categories are brought together in the choice of changes (including, no change) to be made in the real-world situation.

SSM’s detailed analysis of the problem situation shows you how to think on several levels. There is the level on which the system is located, the level above the system (the wider system), and the level below the system (the sub-system). But at the core of the methodology, there are other levels—the level of the perceived problem and the level of the ideal, proper systems (the holons). Because the methodology requires an iterative cycle of definition, comparison, and construction, you must keep moving between the holon and the real-world levels. (A trap for neophytes is to forget that the holon is an ideal system. The holon is not a model of a solution for the real-world problem because it contains too many desirable, but not feasible, changes, given the typical time frame of problem-driven investigations.)

SSM’s primary synthesis activity shows you how to identify proper systems (holons) so that you can find ideal systems that are potentially relevant to the problem situation and the real world. Those systems are subsequently expressed using root definitions supported by rich pictures illustrating the working relationships between the activities in the holon. The initial list is derived from the interview activity, but it is also developed in co-operation with the interested parties (including the client, problem solver, and problem owners). These co-operative activities (culminating in agreement as to the relevance of the systems and producing the definitions and rich pictures) encourage all parties to adopt a common reference point for comparison with the real world. (Remember this: Although the holon has become everybody’s internal reference model, the holon is not the real word system.)

Perhaps the most important “what is in it for me” message is that while SSM works well in a group situation, it works just as well for solving the perceived, messy situations that are present in your every day life, inside and outside the office. For example, you can use it for optimising the information-development process in your office or extending the PTA activities to embrace vacation-based remedial coaching. However, because SSM is a methodology, rather than a method, the best results are achieved in both situations when the person(s) using the methodology have internalized it; the workings of the methodology, its tools, and its mechanisms have become second nature and are applied semi-automatically whenever a messy problem situation appears. When working with such an internalised version, you are free to apply the parts of the methodology that make sense in a given situation.

For example, a rich picture may not be needed for every root definition, because the make up of the rich picture is immediately and intuitively obvious to the people concerned and drawing it is either redundant, overkill, or both. Similarly, not every root definition needs fully itemised CATWOE components—customers, actors, transformation, worldview, owner, and environment. In other words, people who are intimately familiar with the methodology can cut corners on their way through, because they know which corners they are cutting, the implications of making those cuts, and which cut corners eventually need to be revisited to ensure the overall rigour has not been compromised. Caution: The single biggest risk of cutting corners is that a range of implicit assumptions are automatically made concerning the uninvestigated parts of the corners. The single biggest mistake is making decisions on the even bigger assumption that the implicit assumptions are facts! A simple, literal example: The habit of cutting corners when driving along lonely country roads. The implicit assumption is that nothing is coming because you have not seen anything in the distance and the assumed fact is that the road is clear. Eventually, those assumptions lead to a life-changing experience when one day there are several large kangaroos reclining comfortably on the road, just around the corner. Been there; done that!

All experienced writers are familiar with internalising a methodology—they use it every time they give an initial estimate for a writing project. For a person who has internalised the Managing Your Documentation Projects methodology by JoAnn Hackos (Wiley 1994), identifying and estimating the key components of any job is very easy. But in making those initial estimates, such people also intuitively know which estimates will need detailed consideration before signing any contract.

How do you know that an SSM approach is the right way to go or that it has been successful? You don’t. SSM is a methodology, not a method, and definitely not a technique. What you must decide for any given problem situation is whether a rigorous and coherent approach will be of more use than whatever alternative approaches are available, including doing nothing.


Soft Systems Methodology in Action
Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes
2000, New York, NY
John Wiley & Sons
ISBN: 0471986054

Managing Your Documentation Projects
JoAnn T. Hackos
1994, New York, NY
John Wiley & Sons
ISBN: 0471590991