Soft Systems Methodology

As you may already know, there are a number of problem solving methods available today for businesses and other organizations. If you need to solve a specific problem, there are a variety of tools available for you to utilize. You can simply select the model or tool which is the best match for your problem, and get down to work on producing a solution. But what if you aren’t even sure how to define the problem that needs to be solved? When the very definition of the problem is up for debate, you may need to turn to Soft Systems Methodology.

Soft Systems Methodology

Business in inherently complicated, and as such, the problems that come up in the operation of your business are likely to be complicated as well. You may not be able to agree on the definition of a problem with the others in your organization, which is why you could consider turning to Soft Systems Methodology.

This is a seven-stage model, although it should be noted that you can’t necessarily expect to reach a conclusion after a single trip through the seven steps. If you would like to gain a better understanding of the methodology, review the seven steps below.

1 – Appreciation of the Problem

This is a logical place to start, as you need to know as much about the problem at hand as possible before you can make any decisions. However, it is important to not jump to any conclusions at this point. Rather than assuming you know what the problem is, it is important to remain open minded while seeing the issue from a variety of points of view. Talking to people from various parts of your organization is a good option at this stage, as you will gain a better overall understanding for how people see the problem.

2 – Expression of the Problem

Once information has been gathered in step one, the second step is all about pulling together that information. It would be appropriate to say that at this stage, you are trying to ‘make sense of the problem’. It can be difficult to find a way to express such a complex problem in a succinct and concise manner, but that is the task at hand. Taking time to get this step right will be extremely helpful in the overall success of the methodology as a whole.

3 – Formulate Root Definitions

Systems will be modeled in this stage of the process. One of the keys to the third step in this process are root definitions, which will describe the structure of a system. Within those systems there will be individual actors within the organization. To understand how those individuals fit in to the whole. A CATWOE analysis will often need to be conducted. CATWOE, which you may have used previously, stands for customer, actors, transformation process, world view, owner, and environmental constraints. To properly use CATWOE within Soft Systems Methodology, it would be helpful to study this topic separately.

4 – Build Conceptual Models

Once the root definitions have been created, the next step is to develop conceptual models out of those definitions. This is where solutions to the problem can begin to take form, as you will be putting together a model which may actually wind up being put into action later down the line. While it can be exciting to see answers start to take shape at this stage, this is also commonly seen as one of the most difficult stages of the process. Before you move on from this step, you should have models which make sense from a variety of angles. These might not be the final ‘solutions’ to the problem, but they should be well down that road.

5 – Compare Models with Real World

As you know, the models which are constructed on paper never quite work out so easily when they are applied in the real world. One of the best ways to compare your models with their potential real world application is to use a chart. You can fill out the chart with all of the steps in your conception models, and they determine whether or not the steps you proposed are actually practical in the real world. You will likely come away from this step feeling enlightened about the practicality of your models, and you may feel that you need to adjust your models to bring them into closer alignment with what is possible in reality.

Soft Systems Methodology

6 – Define Feasible and Desirable Changes

You are now getting to the point in the model where decisions will be made and recommendations will be passed on to decision makers in the organization (unless you are the one making the decisions). When you are thinking about making changes, there are four points which should be covered in your proposal –

  • Reason for change
  • Nature of the change
  • Means of bringing change
  • Long-term effects of change

This step is very much about weighing both costs and benefits before deciding which actions to take going forward. It is most likely that only some of the ideas that have been developed during the previous steps will continue forward to be put into action.

7 – Recommend Actions

With all of the work completed, it is now time to propose action to those who have the power to put change into effect. Of course, as with any presentation of ideas, you should promote the positive effects which are expected to derive from the actions you are proposing. If action is going to be taken, it must make sense for the organization as a whole, and it must be presented in a way which is convincing.

Soft Systems Methodology is a logical place to turn when you are struggling to solve, or even define, complex problems. It may take some time to get the hang of this complicated and involved process, but that is the price you will need to pay in order to solve difficult business conundrums. Once you have a firm grasp on the Soft System Methodology, you will consider it a valuable piece of your organizational toolbox.

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