Soft systems methodology revisited

Combining Checkland and Churchman for systems learning

This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners.

Systems concepts baffling     Over the past years I have been trying to get a better understanding of the workings of a systems approach described in a workbook that I am co-writer of. Wicked Solutions, as it is called, uses three operable systems concepts to explain systems thinking in a nutshell and get learners to apply them directly on a ‘wicked’ problem of their own so as to gain a direct, hands-on experience of their usefulness. The three concepts are: inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries (as in ‘boundary critique’), see also here. It may seem silly that I don’t understand the workings of a systems approach that I have used and written about myself, but I may well be in very good company.

John Poulter      …., in his talk about a closely related systems approach, explains that “what I realized was that I have been using SSM since I was a schoolboy but I’d never been able to explain to anybody what I was doing when I was analyzing their problems there and it was thanks very much to Peter [Checkland]’s articulation of SSM that at long last I was able to explain to not only to other people but myself what I was actually doing, what process I was following, the stage I’d got to, what I’d learned, and what was to come next and so on.” (online video fragment here). What this implies is that many people, including management consultants, use systems principles naturally, but they don’t realise that they are doing so in a fairly unstructured way, lacking the necessary rigour.

Soft systems methodology     Now I didn’t hit on the video with Poulter by accident. I was actually attempting to get a better overview of the main ‘systems approaches’ developed so far, which led me to a blog post of my own about soft systems methodology (SSM), which I had written in 2012. It was based on my reading of Chapter 5 of ‘Systems approaches to managing change: a practical guide’. Chapter 5 was actually a summary of a book by Checkland and Poulter ‘Learning for Action: a short definitive account of soft systems methodology and its use for practitioners.’ This chapter 5 is available online (e.g. here or here), and was summarized by me in the blog post of 2012 (not a very neat concept map, but then again the squarish concept maps are unforgivable sins against Checkland’s fried-egg preference). The fried-egg diagram that really got me fired up was Fig. 5.9, which I transformed into concept map C below. In my opinion the diagram is a good representation of soft systems approaches generally, which was just what I needed (but that’s for a next post).

Wicked Solutions      It occurred to me that by combining three fried-egg diagrams of Checkland and Poulter with a concept map of my own I could describe SSM on one page, which may help to make it a bit less “intellectually challenging” (quote from here). From there I made two major modifications: 1. I made the systems concepts of perspectives, inter-relationships and boundaries explicit in the elaboration of SSM activity pattern (concept map D, activity pattern element ‘i. exploration’); and 2. I added an element ‘ii. Dialectics’ in the activity pattern to the existing four (now five) in conjunction with the Wicked Solutions step of ‘stake analysis/framings’. In this way it is possible to show that Wicked Solutions covers the first parts of the SSM learning cycle, which could well serve as a powerful first learning experience for introducing students to systems thinking generally and both Checkland’s SSM and Churchman’s dialectical systems approach specifically. It is important to note that Wicked Solutions stops short of developing ‘conceptual activity models’, which means that it also doesn’t provide at present a model for doing so.

Dialectical systems approach       Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is indicated in concept map D by the concept ‘ii. Dialectics’ only. It is itself quite an elaborate approach as well, just like SSM, be it a bit more open to one’s own insights and preferences. I should add here that Wicked Solutions doesn’t use the classical Churchman approach, but a critical derivative developed by Werner Ulrich, a student and admirer of Churchman. Ulrich’s version is commonly known as critical heuristics or critical systems heuristics. The advantage of Ulrich’s version is that it is somewhat easier to use. The disadvantage is that it ignores a number of important insights of Churchman, although this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially where systems novices are concerned. There is more about Churchman’s dialectical systems approach here and elsewhere in the same blog. In the above framework Churchman seems to play a minor role, but this may be deceptive. To explain what Checkland is doing, it may be easiest to use Churchman’s original insights. I prefer to look at them as complementary and mutually explanatory (but that too is a good subject for a future blog post; I realize that I am promising a lot now).

Concept map explanation          I did not as yet provide a full explanation of the above concept map. Here it is: The LUMAS model is an overarching model that applies to all methodologies that seek to improve real-world problematical situations, in this case SSM. The model describes both the development of formal and informal methodologies as well as the learning process of its application, which is action-oriented, because of the complexity and dynamics of real-life situations. Different users may have different appreciations of a methodology, i.e. the application may differ for each user. In the case of soft systems, there are multiple users in multiple roles, from stakeholders or actors, planners and decision-makers or owners to customers. The SSM activity pattern h(bottom) is an elaboration of the more general SSM inquiring cycle (middle left). Churchman’s dialectical systems approach (ii. Dialectics) could be considered both an activity pattern and an inquiring cycle. In the form of critical heuristics it has been used many times as an important first stage in applying SSM. In a certain way Churchman (dialectics) and Checkland (SSM) are mutually explanatory and complementary. A  powerful first learning experience can be gained by introducing students just to elements i and ii of the activity pattern (see ‘Wicked Solutions’, Williams & Van ‘t Hof), using key ideas of both. SSM activity pattern (adapted): The central question to be debated is whether alternatives are likely to improve the problematical situation or not. To answer this question systemically 7 steps need to be followed, numbered in orange: 1. Rich picturing an acceptable representation of the problematical situation, the “is”. 2. Framing the problem and/or solution space. 3. Inquiring dialectically into  the “is” and suggestions of possible alternatives, “ought’s”, in the light of the key question, using systemic criteria or some other meaningful forms of systemic inquiry, based on Churchman’s framework of interdependent categories for judging purposeful activity systems. 4. Designing conceptual models of possible interventions using ideas generated in step 3.  5. Debating to compare the conceptual models designed in step 4.  6. Examining social, cultural and political feasibility and adjusting conceptual models to find mutual agreement. 7. Deciding on implementation or agreement or understanding. An image of the concept map with text can be downloaded from here. More explanations are available from Chapter 5 ‘Soft systems methodology’ by Checkland and Poulter (2010) and ‘Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective’ by Checkland (2000).

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1 Response to Soft systems methodology revisited

  1. antlerboy - Benjamin P Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Systems Community of Inquiry.

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