Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2.3 Developments in practice with SS-method

The historical thread described earlier focussed on the use of systems thinking, implicitly and explicitly, in the area of sustainable development. Systems thinking was used by the authors to make sense of the Brent Spar example. Systems thinking for making sense is a legitimate form of systems practice (and one that you have also experienced previously). Several examples in this unit have been drawn from poorer countries. It may not be any surprise to you that practitioners in poorer countries are leading initiatives in participation in the design and conduct of development projects. However, a similar evolution is taking place with the application of systems methods, which are (in general) becoming more participative (e.g. Ison, Maiteny and Carr, 1997).

Historically most systems practitioners engaged by businesses to tackle issues have adopted the classic consultant role and operated between the ‘decide for’ and ‘decide with’ positions. Many systems methods have been used in this way. However, the developers of SSM, in pursuing their use of it as an action-research project, have increasingly paid attention to the characteristics of the situation in which the methodology is being used. They have used SSM itself to help them with this process. The details of how they have gone about this are, I believe, relevant to systems practice in the domain of sustainable development (see Checkland, 1999). What is more, the creative use of SSM offers strategies to break out of traps associated with uncritical use of systematic thinking and action which has characterised some attempts to manage sustainable development. For example, use of ‘formalised’ approaches to environmental management, such as ISO14001; EMAS; EIA; SIA (see Box 5) have not always contributed to managing sustainable development in the ways that some may have hoped, although admittedly they were not specifically designed for this purpose.

Box 6 Formalised approaches to environmental management: some background notes

ISO 14001 ‘Environmental management systems – specifications with guidance for use’ is the international standard for Environmental Management Systems published by the International Standards Organization (ISO). General guidelines on the principles, systems and supporting techniques have also been provided in a separate standard, ISO 14004.

EMAS is the European Commission’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme originally for industry and is a voluntary regulation that came into operation in April 1995 in all member states of the EU. It has also been adapted for use in local government in the UK.

EIA is Environmental Impact Assessment, which is a compulsory requirement of many development activities. In some situations this may be accompanied by a Social Impact Assessment (SIA).

I have drawn heavily on the book Soft Systems Methodology in Action (1999) by Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes for the following material. I wish to embellish the ‘iconic’ pictorial model that is sometimes used to describe the process of SSM by using an edited extract from Checkland and Scholes. This extract contains an activity sequence model of the methodology as presented in the early 1980s (Figure 10) as well as the 1990’s version (Figure 11).

Figure 10 The seven-step activity model of SSM as articulated in the 1980s (Checkland and Scholes, 1999, p. 27)
Figure 11 An ‘iconic’ pictorial model of the process of SSM as articulated in the 1990s (Checkland and Scholes, 1999, p. 29)

Please read the following edited extract of ‘The Inquiring Process which is SSM’ (Checkland and Scholes, 1999). Then complete the following SAQs as a check on your understanding of the extract. It is also important that you take time to read my answers to these SAQs as they expand on some of the issues raised and contain important teaching material.

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SAQ 8 Comparing models of SSM

Look carefully at Figures 10 and 11. Compare and contrast the two models of SSM they represent by drawing on your own learning about SS-method or -methodology. Outline what the main changes appear to be between the 1980s and the 1990s versions. Suggest any implications of the changes for the systems practitioner?


I will restrict my answer to a comparison of the two models as represented by the figures (10 and 11) because I cannot comment on your learning.

For me some of the main differences between the two depictions of SSM are:

In the early depiction (Figure 10) there is a distinction between the real world and the conceptual world which is not made in the later version (Figure 11). The original purpose of the line was as an aid to distinguishing between the everyday world of the problem situation and the systems thinking about it. For me, the absence of this division in the later version means that one is always iterating between the so-called real world situation and the conceptual world of systems thinking about the situation. There is no clear division occurring in a sequence of steps (as conveyed, perhaps unwittingly by the original model). Of course the onus is on the systems practitioner to be aware of these distinctions as they practice.

The early model has seven stages. Checkland (1999) describes this as happy chance, coinciding as it does with the research done by Miller (reported in the text) which suggests we can only cope with 7± 2 concepts at a time. This means that it is easy enough to remember all the steps and not need to look them up in a book all of the time.

  1. The development of a rich picture is explicit in the early model but implicit in the later model. For some this may be a disadvantage – but it can also be an advantage as it allows the systems practitioner to think of other methods, techniques or tools which may play a similar role to rich picturing. For example, I have used semi-structured interviewing, role playing, poster preparation, SWOT analyses, metaphor analysis and other diagramming techniques as an alternative to rich-picturing so as to gain a rich appreciation of a situation. Checkland now places rich-picturing in the cultural stream of analysis.
  2. The later model has two streams of analysis running concurrently – the cultural analysis which includes analysis of the intervention, the ‘social system’ and the ‘political system’ and the logic-based stream of analysis. The logic-based stream of analysis is much the same as depicted in the earlier version except presented in a linear format. In later use (Checkland, 1999) the two streams of analysis have been fused to define four specific activities:
    • a.finding out about a problem situation, including culturally/politically
    • b.formulating some relevant purposeful activity models
    • c.debating the situation, using the models, seeking from the debate both (i) changes which would improve the situation and are regarded as both desirable and (culturally) feasible, and (ii) the accommodations between conflicting interests which will enable action-to-improve the situation to be taken
    • d.taking action in the situation to bring about improvement.

    Doing SSM is always cyclical and iterative but this is implicit rather than explicit in all depictions.

  3. The two-headed arrows between the cultural and logic streams of analysis show that there is constant iteration between these two streams and that both continue throughout the life of a project. The early model tended to suggest that a rich picture was done at the start and that was it whereas the later version suggests that use of rich pictures or metaphors etc is an on-going activity as long as it aids learning in the situation.
  4. The addition of the people icons to the later version make this depiction richer for me because it reminds me that there are systems practitioners and other stakeholders who engage with the problem or opportunity situation – these are Checkland’s ‘would be improvers of the problem situation’. Note that I have modified Figure 10 from that appearing in Checkland and Scholes (1990) to include reference to opportunities as well as problems.
  5. The later version draws attention to the fact that the problem/opportunity ‘real world’ situation has a history. This history is amenable to analysis: the systems practitioner also has a history which I call a tradition of understanding.
  6. What has not changed between the two versions is the central place of constructing relevant systems (based on CATWOE, transformation), and activity modelling, the process being used to gain insights, to learn, about the real situation, not to model it as it ‘is’.

The different models of SSM have implications for systems practice as well as for learning about SSM. I will leave you to decide what you think these are for yourself. My own responses will become apparent as the teaching text develops.

SAQ 9 SSM as methodology

The quote from Bulow early in the extract refers to SSM as a methodology. To what degree does the soft systems approach described in the extract conform to the definition of methodology used in these units?


The positions on methodology taken by Checkland in Appendix A and that by the course team are different but not that different. The T306 position on methodology is that methodology can only be said to exist in the doing by a person or persons in a specific context. Methodology thus arises in reflection on practice. In Bulow’s quote she says ‘SSM is a methodology’ – this form of description objectifies SSM and gives it a status independent of a particular user although the LUMAS model (Figure 14) is an attempt to avoid this. Saying SSM is a thing creates. This is a trap of language. It means there is a need to be as careful as possible when writing about practice and for that reason we have resorted in this course to describing any written description of ‘methodology’ as method, because we are not able to say what might happen in practice.

Commenting on this answer, Peter Checkland says:

For us methodology is, as the word says, the logos of method, principles of method, principles which a method can embody. I’m happy to ‘objectify’ a methodology as a set of principles written out on paper. Of course words on paper can’t force a user to do any particular thing. But what happens whenever a user consciously ‘uses SSM’ is that they construct what to do in this particular situation with these people with this particular history, culture, politics etc. That produces their method. If they wish to claim to be ‘using SSM’ they have to be able to mount an argument that what we did embodies the principles of the methodology which is SSM in the following way ...

I include Peter’s comments here to provide another perspective. He concludes by saying ‘I don’t find the T306 position on methodology to be as convincing. It ignores the structure of the word.’

SAQ 10 Features of the 1990s version of SSM

The 1990 version of SSM is described in terms of a logic-based stream and a cultural stream. Are both of these present in the 1980s version? What is the implication of the change?


The logic-based stream and a cultural stream are not present in the depiction of the 1980s version, though the inclusion of rich-picturing in the original, and retained in the latter, is an important component of the stream of cultural inquiry. The change means that more attention is now placed on the cultural and political aspects of the engagement of the practitioner with experienced complexity. Both the cultural and logic-based streams of inquiry are on-going through the cycle of inquiry and inform each other. The later version is much closer to the metaphor of the systems practitioner as juggler – but as the reading outlines, there is a lot of experience and robust concepts which underpin the changes and which, if understood, can be used to help the ‘juggler’.

SAQ 11 Primary task and issue-based systems

Look back at the relevant systems employed in the use of SS-method. Were these of the ‘primary task’ or ‘issue based’ type? To what degree did these satisfy the ‘transformation process’?


Elsewhere John Robson carried out a SS-method analysis of the Taurus Project. His relevant system was ‘a system for electronic transfer and settlement of shares of companies listed on the Stock Exchange’. Such a system is clearly of the ‘primary task’ type in that its boundaries could be said to be onto institutionalised arrangements (or boundaries) that exist in the real world. John went on to do a CATWOE and develop a root definition of

A stock Exchange system for electronic transfer and settlement of listed equity securities traded by stockbrokers (on behalf of their clients), which complies with requirements of UK government agencies.

Such a root definition does not seem to satisfy the transformation process described by Checkland to any great extent. It is simply ‘a system to do P’. The elements of ‘by Q in order to achieve R’ are lacking. This seems to be a reflection of the quite systematic (Mode 1) use of the SS-method in this case (which in turn reflects the brief he was given). The T and W elements of the CATWOE don’t seem to have been paired in a way that leads to further insight.

Earlier Jake Chapman uses the SS-method in an informal way to take another look at the Taurus project. He focuses on an issue-based type of system – a system relevant to mental processes that are not embodied in the real world. His system is developed over three iterations into a root definition of:

A system to resolve conflicts between all prospective users of the system so as to ensure that there would be no further changes to the IS once it was agreed and commissioned from a supplier.

This system, despite the fact that Jake is not ‘formally’ following the SS-method seems to embody the ‘transformation process’ described by Checkland. The system describes the core transformation needed, and despite no CATWOE being given seems to pair the T and W components in a far more meaningful and richer way than John Robson was asked to do. It lifts the analysis to a higher level than the detail of the IS.

Checkland says that using both issue and task-based types of systems can be most mind opening. In order to more fully satisfy the exploration and learning process both issue and task based systems might be considered for the same situation.

SAQ 12 What are the three Es?

What are the three Es? What claims are made about their inclusion in SSM? What are the other two Es that can be added and how might they add to the use of SSM?


The three Es are efficacy (for ‘does the means work’, efficiency (for ‘amount of output divided by amount of resources used’) and effectiveness (for ‘is T meeting the longer term aim?’). The three Es are criteria to judge whether a particular transformation can be judged as successful or unsuccessful. They can also be applied to any activity model that is built because the transformation is at the core of any model. You can look back at the examples given to check if you follow how these ideas can be used in practice.

The other two Es that are referred to in the reading are ethicality and elegance. Exploration of the ethicality of particular activity models would seem to be highly relevant in any attempts to mange sustainable development purposefully. An ethical grid is suggested in the reading as one way to do this but the idea is not explained or developed.

The original use of SSM 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:

  1. entering problem situations
  2. doing work in it, or on it
  3. writing a report
  4. 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. 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 1). Choosing between these two ways of using SSM is, for me, a very good example of how the systems practitioner juggles both the E and C 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. 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 1).

Table 1 Some distinctions an observer might make between Mode 1 and Mode 2 use of SSM by a practitioner

Mode 1Mode 2
Sometimes used only as a linear sequenceAlways iterative
SSM as an external recipeSSM as an internalised model
(Adapted from Checkland and Scholes, 1999, p. A36)

Checkland and Scholes (1990) characterise Mode 2 as occurring when the systems practitioner interacts in the events (practices) and ideas (theories) which unfold over time. Another way of saying this is that the practitioner is a participant in the situation rather than being external to it (and it is for this reason that the history of the practitioner – called a tradition – was drawn to your attention). I depicted how a systems practitioner can become part of the situation in the following way (see Figure 12). It is important to note that Mode 1 and Mode 2 are not equivalent to SS-method and SS-methodology (as introduced earlier in the course). However, as Table 2 indicates there was often a predisposition to use Mode 1 SSM as if it were SS-method (i.e as a linear sequence, or as an external recipe).

I can relate to the distinctions between Mode 1 and Mode 2 use of SSM based on my own experience. My initial use of it was very much of the Mode 1 type, but with time and practice I began to internalise much of the thinking and began using it more in Mode 2. I often find myself in situations, particularly meetings, where I ask myself the question: How could I think about what is being proposed in terms of a system of interest? Following this question I might do a quick CATWOE, which primarily helps me to consider what is being discussed in terms of what the main transformation process(es) might be. More often than not I will not formalise my learning in these contexts, though I do keep quite detailed notes of most of my meetings which I can return to if and when necessary.

In comments on this part of the unit, Peter Checkland says that

  • It ought to be made clear that Mode 1/Mode 2 are not two categories; they define a spectrum; they are ideal types; any actual study will be somewhere on the spectrum. The ‘Mode 2’ concept arose naturally as, with experience, two things came together:
    • the ‘technology’ of SSM became internalised; it became tacit knowledge which we did not have to stop and think about; and
    • the experience of the use of SSM convinced us that there was a need to pay attention to the process being enacted as much as the content which the process was addressing.

Mode 2 was thus an emergent development arising experientially not a designed development.

Figure 12 The choices available to the aware (with light-bulb) and non-aware (without light-bulb) systems practitioner with the four balls that need to be juggled for effective practice. The non-aware practitioner always acts in the belief that they are outside the so-called ‘real world’ situation. In contrast the aware practitioner acts from an understanding that there is no position external to the ‘real world’ – i.e. they are always in the situation, usually with others. In addition they can also act ‘as if’ it were possible to stand outside the situation in an awareness of the ethics of doing so

SAQ 13 Modes of practice with SSM

In the examples from my practice of Mode 1 and Mode 2 use am I using SSM as a methodology or merely drawing on some techniques that are part of what is involved in using it?


For me to judge my use as methodology, rather than use of technique I would want to see evidence of a formal or semi-formal evaluation of what I had learnt about:

  • a.the situation
  • b.SSM
  • c.the thinking underpinning my use of SSM, and my own adeptness, at ‘juggling’ in the situation.

It is not often that I string all of them together, but much of the time I am doing more than using techniques.

Before going on to address how SSM might be used in the context of sustainable development I would like to draw out some of the implications for systems practice of Mode 1 and Mode 2 ways of contextualising SSM. I think this is best done by hearing from an experienced practitioner, one who makes his living from his systems practice.

Read the paper by Mike Haynes and then answer the following SAQs based on your reading of this paper and the earlier reading by Checkland and Scholes.

SAQ 14 Features of SSM

What feature does Haynes claim distinguishes SSM from other systems approaches?


Haynes claims that SSM is itself a learning system. It is not clear from the way he expresses himself whether he sees SSM as a learning system because it involves an organised process of inquiry based on systems ideas or whether it is a learning system because of some other, unspecified criteria. For example it might be seen as a process to orchestrate a particular form of the experiential learning cycle that has been described earlier in the course. The distinction that Haynes wants to emphasise is that systemicity (the property of being a system) is focused on the process of inquiry rather than being in the world. In his conclusion he makes the point that the role of the SSM-practising consultant is to design and manage a learning system appropriate to the needs of the client and the problem situation. He suggests this is achieved by gaining a clear understanding of the needs of the client and the organisational context in which learning about improvements will occur.

SAQ 15 Weaknesses of the seven-step model of SSM

What weaknesses does Haynes identify as being associated with the seven-step, Mode 1 use of SSM?


He identifies two main weaknesses. Firstly the slavish adherence to the seven step model by practitioner’s lacking confidence to contextualise (adapt) it to a particular situation. The second problem was that cultural aspects of the problem/opportunity situation tended to be overlooked. He links these two weaknesses with shallow use of SSM which sometimes fail to get to ‘the root of a problem and occasionally lead to disillusionment with the methodology’.

SAQ 16 Difficulties in Mode 1 use of SSM

Haynes describes the seven-step Mode 1 form of SSM as clear, easily understood and able to be assimilated by most in a limited time period. Outline the two main difficulties he recognises in the practical Mode 1 application of SSM.


The two difficulties Haynes recognises are:

  1. persuading people that developing some form of picture [a rich picture] capturing the main elements of the problem/opportunity situation is a useful thing to do and that considerable artistic talent is not a prerequisite; and
  2. ensuring that the purposeful activity models constructed are not models of the real world – developing root definitions and activity models that include issue based models in addition to primary task models.

Haynes also notes that primary task models are often restricted to activities that already actually exist – and that such a restriction should not apply.

SAQ 17 Consulting with SSM

What process does Haynes stress as an important consulting objective to adopt in using systems concepts and SS-method in particular? What aim links the different ways of enacting this process?


Haynes stresses giving specific attention to organising the process of inquiry in order for useful learning for the client to occur. He identifies a number of ways in which learning occurs but argues that the common aim is to learn how to move forward and make some improvement.

SAQ 18 Entering the ‘problem situation’

What are some of the ways identified by Haynes for ‘entry to the problem situation’ in the developed form (Mode 2 use) of SS-method?


He suggests any number of ways but specifically names group-meetings, one-to one interviewing or mixtures of both. He suggests one-to-one interviews are useful for teasing out issues as part of a cultural analysis.

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