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soft systems methodology


Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology (SSM) (for example, see Checkland and Scholes 1990) is an approach to deal with a ‘mess’ (Russell Ackoff) or ‘wicked problem’ (Horst Rittel) or, more specifically to domain of ECOSENSUS, ‘natural resource dilemmas’ (Neils Roling), or any other similar expressions of complex issues. In SSM the complexity is addressed through appreciating multiple perspectives and viewpoints from different stakeholders associated with the issue.

The key techniques of SSM can be summarised in association with three general stages:

  1. (Re)exploring a situation of interest (for example, a complex situation associated with natural resource dilemmas) through diagramming, for example, developing a rich picture, in order to reveal the key issues to be addressed.
  2. (ii) Developing a conceptual model of the situation through identifying ‘systems of interest’ from situations of interest represented in the rich picture, associating active verbs with the model. At minimum defining a system of interest in terms of a system to do P by Q for reasons of R.

    Where P represents the purpose of transformation, Q represents the means for undertaking the purpose, and R represents the undelying rationale for undertaking the transformation.
  3. (iii) Enacting the model, and using the previous two stages as a source for iteration, developing and enacting new systems of interest to address and improve upon the original situation.

For a further description of key SSM techniques associated with the first two stages, see 'SSM in more detail'. These notes are drawn from The Open University Masters course entitled Environmental Decision Making: A Systems Approach.


  • Checkland, P. B. and J. Scholes (1990). Soft Systems Methodology in Action. Chichester, John Wiley.