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What Is Soft Systems Methodology? SSM Definition + Top Tips

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Soft Systems Methodology is a tool that was invented to help developers and users match end results. It’s not always easy to please everyone. This tool is used to look at all the groups of people involved and how to arrive at the most desirable conclusion.

Soft Systems Methodology is a tool that helps developers and users match end results.Soft Systems Methodology is a tool that helps developers and users match end results.Soft Systems Methodology is a tool that helps developers and users match end results.
Soft Systems Methodology is a tool that helps developers and users match end results. (Image source: Envato Elements)

This tutorial will discuss what Soft Systems Methodology is and its definition. We’ll also cover the seven steps of Soft Systems Methodology. Plus, we’ll also look at the benefits and limitations of Soft Systems Methodology.

What Is Soft Systems Methodology?

Soft Systems Methodology is used by managers and consultants who work on technical and organizational problems.Soft Systems Methodology is used by managers and consultants who work on technical and organizational problems.Soft Systems Methodology is used by managers and consultants who work on technical and organizational problems.
Soft Systems Methodology is mainly used by managers and consultants who work on technical and organizational problems. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Soft Systems Methodology is mainly used by managers and consultants who work on technical and organizational problems. One of the fields in which this method is popular is the Information Technology/Information Systems field. According to, here's the Soft Systems Methodology definition:

“Soft systems methodology provides a framework for structuring, analyzing, and solving problems in systems that involve people. It integrates logical, cultural, and political analyses of a problem situation in order to imagine, discuss, and then implement actions to improve the situation, with the consensus of the participants.”

The Seven Steps of Soft Systems Methodology

Soft Systems Methodology has seven stages. Here are the Soft Systems Methodology 7 stages:

1. Enter the Problematic Situation

Enter the problematic situation.Enter the problematic situation.Enter the problematic situation.
Enter the problematic Situation. (Image source: Envato Elements)

In this step, you look at the problem and gather information. The information that you need is views of the problem that are problematic and where you could improve.

Once everyone has agreed that there needs to be a change to fix the problem, research needs to be done. This information includes what the main points of the problem are, performance issues, and how the current process is working.

2. The Problem Situation Expressed

In this step of Soft Systems Methodology, look at as many views of the situation as you can. This may require making a diagram because some tough situations are hard to express in words.

In this step, many people use a Rich Picture to look at the situation.

A Rich Picture is where you use diagrams to create a mental model of where you define and acknowledge the situation.

Some of the benefits of using Rich Pictures are:

  • It allows the differences in interpretation to be identified.
  • It allows people to agree on the interpretation taken.
  • It can inspire what relevant systems can be shown through taking in relationships, issues, etc. It identifies themes to take into the Systems world.

There are no formal Rich Picture symbols. This is because every situation is different. It’s important to capture the different elements in every situation.

3. Root Definitions of Relevant Systems

This step of Soft Systems Methodology is essential. This step is where you create a statement about the root problem and define the issue.

Then, the Root Definition is used to logically arrive at the solution and what the company will have to do to meet the Root definition.

In this step, once you’ve gotten to the Root Definition, you can test it against an analysis like the CATWOE analysis for quality. According to the University of Cambridge, CATWOE stands for:

  • Customers. Who are they? How does the issue affect them?
  • Actors. Who does the situation involve? Who will be involved in putting the solutions into action? What will impact their success?
  • Transformation Process. What processes or systems are affected by the issue?
  • Worldview. What's the big picture? What are the wider impacts of the issue?
  • Owner. Who owns the process or situation you’re looking into? What's their role in the situation?
  • Environment. What are the limitations that impact the solution and its success?

If CATWOE doesn’t apply to your Root Definition, then you need to rework your Root Definition. You can even use CATWOE to make your Root Definition draft.

4. Conceptual Models

A conceptual model is a method of documenting definitions and discussing precise meanings of terms to stakeholders. This model doesn’t have technical biases, information, or data models and represents the language of the business.

If you want to, you can make notes about the reasoning behind a particular activity in the model.

Important tip: You're not modeling the real-world system, but the activities that are needed to deliver the Transformation in the Root Definition. If you're worried that someone will question your methods when presenting this, you can have arguments that explain your reasoning.
Conceptual modelsConceptual modelsConceptual models
Conceptual models. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Soft Systems Methodology, Root Definitions, CATWOE, and Conceptual Models were developed for Human Activity Systems. These systems complete their purpose through human activity and not software systems or product systems.

Humans don’t always repeat their actions, so the outcome of situations can be different each time. Use Human Activity Systems to monitor and control operations activities.

Operational activities are logically necessary to perform the transformation stated in the Root definition. Every activity needs to be monitored to ensure that its being compared well, and there needs to be an action to fix it if it isn't.

How to check the monitor and control is to follow the three Es. According to the University of Cambridge, these are:

  1. Effective. Is the system doing the thing it’s supposed to? Is the system contributing to higher level goals?
  2. Efficacy. Is the system giving you the result you desire?
  3. Efficient. Is the system using the least number of resources?

By answering the three Es, you can determine how much monitoring and control that you need to do.

5. Compare Your Models with the Real World

In this step, look at the models you’ve created and compare them to real-world situations. The purpose is to have a discussion of what changes can improve the situation.

First, you need to look into the differences between your logical model and what happened in reality. This will lead to questions that can led to change. To do this, you need to look at three different areas. They are:

  • Conceptual Model activities
  • Real World
  • What You Could Do

6. Define Changes That Are Feasible and Desirable

We've looked at what you would like to happen in an ideal real world. But there are only so many resources like people and money in a company.

So, you decided what order and what times you want the changes and recommendations to take place. The difficulty with this step is that people won't always be motivated to make the changes even if there's logic like the conceptual model behind the change.

Remember that the people involved in the changes can hold different and conflicting views even when you’ve created the conceptual model.
Define changes that are feasible and desirable Define changes that are feasible and desirable Define changes that are feasible and desirable
Define changes that are feasible and desirable. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Typically, if the change clashes with the company's culture, the culture almost always wins. It can be hard to find cultural possibilities. Most people emphasize logic and forget about the cultural features that can determine whether the change will occur. This is why it's important when thinking about the views of the Root Definition.

When you're trying to prioritize actions, there’s a tool to use. It's the Ease Benefit Matrix. This tool works by comparing how a set of actions are easy and how much benefit the actions yield. The actions with the highest benefit and lowest effort are prioritized. This tool needs to be used to promote, structure, and organize thinking and debates that'll allow decisions for change that need to be made.

7. Action to Improve the Situation

After the changes have been identified and are considered desirable and possible to do easily can be used to take action.

Often, the actions that take place will result in new systems that'll affect the bigger system, leading to more opportunities and difficult situations. This means that the process will start again.

Benefits and Limitations of Soft Systems Methodology

Here are some benefits of Soft Systems Methodology:

1. Think Past the Technical

Think past the technicalThink past the technicalThink past the technical
Think past the technical. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Soft Systems Methodology adds structure to complicated organizational situations. This tool allows the use of dealing with the problem in an organized method. This tool makes the user look past technical terms or procedures and think about what will work in a situation.

2. Helpful Steps

Since there are seven steps that Soft Systems Methodology uses, the tool puts challenging situations through a rigorous test. Since the tool is so rigorous, it can help the user to think through the issues they're facing more thoroughly.

Now that we’ve looked at the benefits of Soft Systems Methodology, let’s look at some limitations:

1. Requires Adaptation

Requires adaptationRequires adaptationRequires adaptation
Requires adaptation. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Soft System Methodology requires those involved to adapt to the system. But it can be challenging to convince others that the change is needed.

2. Too Narrow

Some who use the Soft Systems Methodology tool can narrow down their solutions too early. This can limit the solutions to your problems.

3. Rich Picture

Rich pictureRich pictureRich picture
Rich picture. (Image source: Envato Elements)

It can be challenging to think about the Rich Picture without adding a structure or solution that the user is used to. This can throw off the Soft Systems Methodology tool result.

4. People Want Action

Often people want action, and they want it quickly. This can cause people to interpret the worldview too loosely, and then the solution won't have the desired effect.

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Learn More About Management

Here are some helpful articles that discuss other management tools:

Try Using Soft Systems Methodology Today!

Now that we’ve discussed what Soft Systems Methodology try using it to solve your next challenging issue.

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Editorial Note: This content was originally published in April 2022. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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