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.