Checkland and Poulter defined SSM as follows:
“SSM is an organized way of tackling perceived problematical (social) situations. It is action oriented. It organizes thinking about such situations so that action to bring about improvement can be taken” (Checkland and Poulter 2010), p. xv).
SSM uses system ideas developed within hard systems thinking in problem solving. SSM is an approach which in a systematic way tries to establish and structure a debate concerning actions for improving the problem situation (Simonsen, 1994, http://www.jespersimonsen.dk/Downloads/SSM-IntroductionJS.pdf)(Simonsen 1994). Soft systems approaches diverge from hard systems approaches in explicitly integrating the assumption that an objective representation of reality does not exist. Our perspective is always directed and filtered by our world view. We always have only a partial picture of reality (See illustration).
Illustration: The blind men and the matter of the elephant (reproduced from Meadows, D., 2008, p. 7)
Beyond Ghor, there was a city. All its inhabitants were blind. A king with his entourage arrived nearby; he brought his army and camped in the desert. He had a mighty elephant, which he used to increase the people’s awe.
The populace became anxious to see the elephant, and some sightless from among this blind community ran like fools to find it.
As they did not even know the form or shape of the elephant, they groped sightlessly, gathering information by touching some part of it.
Each thought that he knew something, because he could feel a part…
The man whose hand had reached an ear… said: “It is a large, rough thing, wide and broad, like a rug.”
And the one who had felt the trunk said: “I have the real fact about it. It is like a straight and hollow pipe, awful and destructive.”
The one who had felt its feet and legs said: “It is mighty and firm, like a pillar.”
Each had felt one part out of many. Each had perceived it wrongly…
This ancient Sufi story was told to teach a simple lesson but one that we often ignore: The behavior of a system cannot be known just by knowing the elements of which the system is made.
Soft system methodology tries to align the partial pictures to be able to take coordinated action. This radical constructivist perspective includes that social systems do not exist as such, but are always informed by intentionality. Identifying this intentionality is at the core of SSM (Vandenbroeck 2015).
In short, SSM can be characterised by the following points:
- In contrast to the approaches described above (grounded theory and framework analysis), SSM is an action-oriented approach, which means that its purpose is to enable actions to improve (Checkland, 2000, research paper)(Checkland 2000). The change sought can be structural change, process change or changes of attitude, or all three at once (Checkland, 2000, research paper)(Checkland 2000).
- SSM is used “to make sense of complex situations” (Checkland, 2000, research paper)(Checkland 2000).
- SSM is flexible. Any approach able to deal with the changing complexity of real life needs to be flexible, because every situation involving human beings is unique. SSM offers a set of principles which can be adopted and adapted for use in any real situation in which people want to take action to improve it. SSM is not a clear sequence of steps. (Checkland, 2000, research paper)(Checkland 2000)
- SSM is a learning cycle, which goes from finding out about a problematical situation to defining/taking action to improve it. (Checkland, 2000, research paper)(Checkland 2000)
Checkland (Checkland and Poulter 2010) emphasized that SSM is not a technique in the sense of a recipe, nor a method, but a methodology. That means it is a set of principles which can be adapted for use in a way which suits the specific nature of each situation in which it is used. The set of principles can be adopted or adapted for use in any real situation in which people are intending to take action to improve it.