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5.1.2 The SSM learning cycle


Adapted from Checkland and Poulter (2010)


The SSM process takes the form of a cycle. It is a cycle of learning which goes from finding out about a problematical situation to defining/taking action to improve it. The steps in the learning cycle are described below (see also Figure X).


Figure X: The SSM’s learning cycle


Real system

Soft  system world

2) Formulate root definitions

3) Build activity models

1) Find out about the problematical situation

4) Use the models to question the real world situation

5) Define actions to improve the situation Find out about the problematical situation


The starting point is a problematical situation. Problematical situations are characterized by:

  • Multiple interacting actors with each their own perception of reality or world view
  • People acting purposefully, with intention.

In the language of SSM four ways of finding out about a problematical situation are described.


a. Making rich pictures

Rich pictures are created to show multiple interacting relationships, hence illustrate the complexity of human situations. Knowledge about a situation can be assembled by means of interviews, reading documents, attending meetings etc. and be summarized afterwards in a rich picture. The pictures become richer as inquiry proceeds. In making a rich picture the aim is to capture, informally, the main entities, structures and viewpoints in the situation, the processes going on, the currently recognized issues and any potential ones. Qualitative research techniques (such as observations, interviews, focus groups) are particularly suited to build rich pictures.


b. Analyzing the intervention

Identify who are in the roles of ‘client’ and ‘practitioner’, and who could be included in the list of issue owner?

  • The client is the person or group of persons who caused the intervention to happen.
  • The practitioner is the person or group of persons who were conducting the investigation
  • Owner of an issue are people who are concerned about or affected by the situation and the outcome of the effort to improve it.


c. Analyzing the social

If we want to know whether a practical action could improve a situation, then the changes involved in ‘improvement’ have to be not only desirable but also culturally feasible. They need to be possible for particular people, with their particular history and their particular world views.

Three elements help to create the social texture of a human situation:

  • Roles or social positions differentiating between members of an organization. Some roles are formally recognized (e.g. director, department head, team member etc.) other roles are informal and linked to individuals’ reputation.
  • Norms are expected behaviors associated with a role.
  • Values are the standards by which role behavior gets judged.

Every time you interact with the situation by talking to people, reading documents, sitting in a meeting, conducting an interview, you learn about the roles, norms and values characterizing a particular group. Document them by writing down notes or memo’s.


d. Analyzing the political

The political is about the disposition of power in a situation and the processes for containing it. This is a powerful element in determining what is culturally feasible. Politics is also about accommodating different interests. In this analysis it is asked ‘how is power expressed in this situation?’ What are the commodities (e.g. personal charisma, membership of various committees, reputation, access to information, etc.) which signal that power is possessed in this situation? What are the processes, by which these commodities are obtained, used, protected, defended, passed on, relinquished, etc. Formulate root definitions


In order to construct an activity model, we need a statement describing the activity system to be modelled. This description is the root definition (RD), i.e. the description of what the system does, how and why. This is known as the PQR formula: do P (what), by Q (how), in order to help achieve R (why). The root definition is written out as a statement modelling a transformation process.


Although the PQR formula helps to define the root definition, which is the basis for the activity model, it can be further enriched by the use of the mnemonic CATWOE. The idea is that purposeful activity, defined by a transformation process (T) and a worldview (W) will require people (A) to do the activities which make up T. It will affect people (C) outside itself who are its beneficiaries or victims. It will take as given various constraints from the environment outside itself (E). It could be changed or stopped by persons (O) who are regarded as owning it.

  • C  customers
  • A  actors
  • T transformation
  • W  worldview
  • O owners
  • E  environmental constraints Build activity models


Building activity models means putting together the activities needed to describe the transforming process, in other words defining and linking the activities needed to achieve the transformation process. It is about the activities which do the transforming. Every phrase in the root definition should lead to something in the model, and every activity in the model must be linkable to something in the root definition.

The purposeful activity models can never be descriptions of (a part of) the real world. They model only one way of looking at reality, one world view. Activity models are devices which make sure that the learning process is not at random, but organized.

In addition to the root definition, it is useful to include control and monitoring activities by thinking about performance criteria, such as efficacy, (is the intended outcome produced?), efficiency (is the transformation achieved with a minimum use of resources) and effectiveness (does the transformation help achieve some higher-level or longer term aim?)

Activity models do not model the current ways of working but rather the concepts in the root definition. The aim is to question current practice by comparing the model to the real world situation.

It is useful to make models of purposeful activities whose boundaries cut across organizational boundaries, instead of accepting the organizational boundaries as a given. Purposeful activities are often institutionalized within departments, divisions, sections etc. Therefore it is tempting to model activities along internal organizational boundaries. Although this is not wrong, one should be conscious about the limitations this brings about. For example, organizational boundaries of departments are often linked to power play going on in organizations, because it is about allocating resources. To stimulate the (out of the box) thinking of the researchers it is useful to make models of purposeful activity cutting across organizational boundaries, hence independent of existing structures. You should not be modelling the current ways of working, but rather questioning current practice and build theoretical activity models, which are next compared to the real world. Also remember to stay focused on the root definition when building the model. Notice that the activity models do not purport to become accounts of what we would wish the real world to be like. They could not, since they are artificial devices based on a pure worldview, whereas human groups are always characterized by multiple conflicting worldviews (even within one individual) which themselves change over time.


The following steps could help you to build activity models:

1)     Assemble the guidelines: PQR, CATWOE etc.

2)     Write down three groups of activities – those which concern the thing which gets transformed, those activities which do the transforming, and any activities concerned with dealing with the transformed entity.

3)     Connect the activities by arrows which indicate the dependency of one activity upon another.

4)     Add the three monitoring and control activities.

5)     Check the model against the guidelines.  Does every phrase in the root definition lead to something in the model? Can every activity in the model be linked back to something in the root definition?

As a guideline, the operational part of the model could contain 7+/-2 activities. Using the models to question the real world situation


As already explained, the activity models are the devices or tools which enable that discussion is a structured rather than a random one. The models are sources of “good” questions to ask about the real situation, enabling it to be explored richly. For example: here is an activity in this model, does it exist in the real situation? Who does it? How? When? Who else could do it? The questions resulting from the comparison between the activity model(s) and the real world could be addressed in a focus group or even an individual face-to-face interview. An informal approach is to have a discussion about improving the situation in the presence of the models. If some relevant models are on flip charts on the wall, they can be referred to and brought into the discussion at appropriate moments. We could ask whether we would like activity in the situation to be more, or less, like that in the model. Such questioning organizes and structures a discussion/debate about the real world situation. The purpose of the discussion is to surface different worldviews and to seek possible ways of changing the problematical situation for the better.

Note that the models are not meant to be accounts of what we would wish the real world to be like. It is dangerous to talk about the comparison between the real situation and the models, because it can be taken to imply that the discussion focusses on deficiencies in the situation when set against the ‘perfect’ models. The models only reflect pure worldviews, which in real situations co-occur within the group or even within one person.

An activity model and the questions being raised out of the comparison between the model and the real situation, can be summarized in a matrix (type excel table) (see Table X). The model provides the left-and column, consisting of activities and connections from the model, while the other axis contains questions to ask about those elements. The task is then to fill in the matrix by answering the questions.

Table X: Example of a matrix template



Who does it?















 Define/take action to improve the situation, seek accommodation


Identifying different world views and seeking ways for improvement, means finding an accommodation, this is “a version of the situation which different people with different worldviews could nevertheless live with” (Checkland and Poulter 2010 p. 55). Checkland and Poulter (Checkland and Poulter 2010) explicitly differentiate accommodation from consensus. Consensus is static and suggests that everyone agrees about everything, while accommodation “emphasizes the provisional and even precarious character of an agreement between different interests and perspectives” (Vandenbroeck 2015). Accommodations involve compromise or some yielding of position. It is a necessary step in moving to deciding about what to do in a particular situation.

As discussion based on using models to question the problematical situation proceeds, worldviews will be surfaced, entrenched positions may shift, and possible accommodations may emerge. Any such accommodation will entail making changes to the situation, if it is to become less problematical, and discussion can begin to focus on finding some changes which are both arguably desirable and culturally feasible. In practical terms it is a good idea not to try and discuss the abstract idea ‘accommodation’ directly. It is best approached obliquely through considering what changes might be made in the situation and what consequences would follow. The practical way forward in seeking accommodation is by exploring possible changes and noting reactions to them” (Checkland and Poulter 2010) p. 58).

Change in real situations usually entails making changes to structures, processes or procedures, and attitudes. Structure is the easiest to change. But new structures usually require both new processes and new attitudes on the part of those carrying out the processes or being affected by them.


Questions which can inspire discussions leading to accommodation are:

  • What combination of structural, process and attitudinal change is needed?
  • Why?
  • How can it be achieved?
  • What enabling action is also required?
  • Who will take action?
  • When?
  • What criteria will judge
  •  success/lack of success
  • completion

These questions represent things to think about when considering changes which are both desirable and feasible. The question about “enabling action” refers to which actions are needed to make a potential change accepted. This recognises the social context in which any change is embedded. Because of this context, introducing the change may require enabling action, which is not directly part of the change itself.


Concluding remark:

Notice that the four stages of the SSM learning cycle should not be treated as a sequence of steps. “Although virtually all investigations will be initiated by finding out about the problematical situation, once SSM is being used, activity will go on simultaneously in more than one of the ‘steps’” (Checkland and Poulter 2010) p. 14).