Soft Systems Methodology

Soft Systems Methodology attempts to foster learning and appreciation of the problem situation between a group of stakeholders rather than set out to solve a pre-defined problem. The complexity of many organisational/social problem situations defeats attempts at defining a problem: in many such situations the problem is 'what is the problem?'. SSM provides a framework for tackling such situations.


There are two main modes within SSM, real world activities and systems thinking about the real world. 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 uses concepts of hierarchy, communication, control, and emergent properties 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 a debate, which through an 'appreciative process' can lead to feasible and desirable change and then to action. Soft Systems Methodology has been developed over twenty years by Peter Checkland of the Department of Systems at Lancaster University, and others.


Soft Systems Methodology is based on the following axioms:

  1. Problems do not exist independent of human beings, they are constructs of the concerned mind, defined by individual world view; therefore look not at the problem but at the situation.
  2. Interrelationship of problems = 'mess' (multiple problem situation).
  3. Worldview - different (and equally valid) interpretations of the world by each individual.
  4. (Corollary of 1) Solutions are also intellectual constructs and no 'problem' exists in isolation.
  5. Improvements in situations are most likely through sharing of perceptions, persuasion and debate. Analysts should be interactive/therapeutic rather than expert.
  6. Analysts cannot be divorced from the problem.


Soft systems uses the mnemonic "CATWOE" to list the perspectives of a situation that must be considered:

  • Customers
  • Actors
  • Transformation process
  • Worldview
  • Owner
  • Environmental constraints.

Transformation is judged by the 3 Es

  • Efficacy (does the means work?)
  • Efficiency (Amount of output over resources used)
  • Effectiveness (Meeting the longer term aim?)


The following roles are recognised explicitly:

  • Client (who caused the study to take place).
  • Would-be problem solver (Who wishes to do something about the situation).
  • Problem owner(s) (list, including the above).


  • Checkland and Scholes (1990), Naughton (1984), Eden and Radford (1990)


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