Solving Complex Business Problems: An Introduction to Soft Systems Methodology

Some business problems are by their nature, complex to handle. Due to their complexity and the non-suitability of traditional problem solving methods, Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) can be used as the methodology for arriving at recommendations for action and positive change. This recommendation for action can range from making minute changes to a process to introducing a new information system.

What is Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)?

Soft systems methodology, Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) was developed by Peter Checkland in the late 60’s at the University of Lancaster, UK and can be defined as a “systems thinking” approach used for analyzing and solving problems in complex situations. It is best used for understanding the various perceptions and viewpoints of people involved in the situation. SSM is particularly suited to these business problems because it seeks to evaluate as many different opinions as possible with the aim of increasing understanding.

SSM has stimulated a lot of academic debate over the years, with one of its strengths being its suitability for use in multiple projects. SSM has traditionally been viewed as a problem-solving methodology that leads to intervention and change in the world, achieved through a learning process. SSM practitioners often use it as a way of developing understanding of a situation. SSM can be used flexibly and can be applied in any particular order.

SSM has been used successfully in projects involving change management, information systems planning, human resource management, construction management, project management, etc. It is an approach for exploring the messy/complex situations in human activity systems by learning from the different perceptions existing in the minds of the different stakeholders involved in the situation (Andrews, 2000).

SSM Acknowledges Different World Views

Checkland took the ideas from system theory and developed it into a framework known as the Soft Systems Methodology. Though SSM can be used to analyze any problematic situation, it is best suited to difficult situations where different people have different conceptualizations of what the problem really is. The steps in SSM are however not sequential, with the analysis commencing at any stage and backtracking from one step to another, where necessary.

SSM presumes that each individual will see the world differently, with different world views leading to different conceptualizations of the situation, which in turn produces different ideas for positive action. The different views are often a result of the culture and politics of the industry in question, thereby colouring the aims and objectives of the proposed solution. SSM principles are based on the fact that through the conversational process of thinking and re-thinking, learning is achieved and perceptions change, thereby leading to an acceptable definition of the way forward.

How is this relevant to business analysts?

Because SSM compares the world as it is with what it might be, it produces a better understanding of the business problem, which considers the view of the different stakeholders.

SSM is particularly useful for structuring thinking around an issue and providing a more complete and holistic view of the situation.

Business Analysts should consider applying SSM when faced with the following categories of business problems:

  1. Vague problem definition: It is not particularly clear what problem you are trying to solve
  2. Diversity in the composition and number of stakeholders, all pursuing their own interests.
  3. Unstructured/messy situations that require a recommendation for multiple courses of action.

When next you are faced with a complex and messy situation, consider applying the soft systems methodology to find your way through the maze.

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