The acquaintance with Soft Systems Methodology has arguably been the most impactful factor in my development as a systems thinker. It was my good friend and mentor Luc Hoebeke who introduced me to this body of knowledge fifteen years ago, and it took me a long time to fully absorb it into my practice. As my experience with it deepens, my respect for the beauty and cogency of these ideas grows in sync.
We deal with complexity by collectively ‘learning to act’, by choreographing a pragmatic process of action inquiry into situations that are in need of improvement.
Why the moniker ‘soft systems methodology’?
The approach is ‘soft’ because it contrasts with a ‘hard’ engineering approach. Confronted with complexity, the latter says: “I see systems which I can engineer.” The soft systems practitioner takes a fundamentally different stance: “I see complexity and confusion, but I can organise exploration of it as a learning system.”
From a ‘soft’ perspective, it’s not the world that is systemic in nature, but the approach we rely on to inquire into its complexity. So we’re talking about a ‘soft | systems approach’ rather than a ‘soft systems | approach’. The world ‘methodology’ reveals that this is a set of principles. It is important to rigorously adhere to their spirit. At the same time they need to be put into practice freely and context-sensitively.
How does it work in practice?
SSM provides a powerful playbook to construct ‘models’ relevant to problematic situations (not of problematic situations!).
These models are not blueprints, they do not represent the truth and do not unambiguously point to ‘leverage points’. They help us to have a better, more probing conversation about what might be desirable and feasible change.
We are at liberty to develop multiple models to explore different perspectives (‘worldviews’) on the situation. Time, patience and available resources will tell us how far we can go before our exploration has to segue into on-the-ground action to create actual improvement. This intervention will be a reflection of the temporary accommodation found between the different parties concerned.
SSM is level-headed enough to assume that intervention will not solve the problem once and for all. It will lead to a new, improved situation which, at some point, will invite a new round of action learning.
SSM is an approach that integrates systems ideas, dialogue and action-orientation into a coherent whole. It proposes an inclusive process to create clarity in a complex, problematic situation. It is a process that takes differences in worldview of people affected by the situation explicitly into account. The purpose is to come to a joint agreement about what actions are desirable and feasible that may lead to an improvement, however modest, of the situation.