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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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6.1 The formal use of SSM

The original use of SSM as exemplified by Figure 7 was mainly in terms described by Peter Checkland as a ‘highlighted study’ which had an unconsidered and limiting model of intervention (in terms of this course a limiting model of engaging with complexity). This limiting model of intervention involved outsiders:

  • entering problem situations
  • doing work in it, or on it
  • writing a report
  • departing.

It is this series of activities which the seven-step (or stage) model has perpetuated and which resulted in many people using it systematically rather than more creatively or systemically. The formal use of the seven-stage version of SSM has been termed Mode 1 use by Checkland and Scholes.

When Jim Scholes, then a business planning and control manager, began using Checkland’s Mode 1 version of SSM in his day-to-day work he realised that his mode of use was very different to the intervention model described above. Subsequently the original, or Mode 1 use of SSM has been described as ‘using SSM to do a study’ (the four-step intervention using the seven-stage model) compared to ‘doing work using SSM in everyday situations’. The differences have practical implications. The former involves mentally starting with SSM and using it to structure what is done. In contrast, the latter involves mentally starting from what is to be done (the situation) and making sense of it by mapping it on to SSM, or making use of it through SSM (see Table 2).

Activity 2 Revisiting the juggler metaphor

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes for this activity.

Using the free response box below, describe how the different processes shown in Figures 7 and 8 relate to the different balls of the juggler metaphor that you were introduced to in Week 1’s introductory video [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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Choosing between these two ways of using SSM is, for me, a very good example of how the systems practitioner juggles both the E (engaging) and C (contextualising) balls. But the act of choosing implies that we can always sit back and think rationally about our choices – my experience suggests that in the day-to-day flux of managing this is a rare luxury so I would propose that the issues that Scholes and Checkland have grappled with relate to how a practitioner juggles the B ball – their being as a systems practitioner. In both cases the systems practitioner needs to manage (the M ball) their involvement with the situation they are applying the approach to. It is the internal mental use of SSM as a thinking mode in everyday situations that is described as Mode 2 use of SSM (see Table 2 in the next section).