What Is Soft Systems Methodology?

M. McGee
M. McGee
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Businessman giving a thumbs-up

Soft systems methodology is a process used to work through situations that have no defined procedure. These situations are often difficult or complex and have steps heavily influenced by things such as opinion, culture, knowledge of the situation or environment. This methodology lays out a set of rules that are used to define the process and begin working towards goals. In most cases, these methods rely on human systems to define problems and find solutions, rather than mathematical or scientific systems.

Contrary to what many believe, the soft in ‘soft systems methodology’ refers to the methods used to determine a plan, not the systems involved. A soft problem is one that is made up of non-definable aspects, like psychology or cultural identity, while a hard problem uses definable numbers and repeatable experimentation. In the same vein, a soft approach uses soft systems while a hard approach uses hard systems. Even if the problem utilized hard systems, a soft systems methodology may still be used as an approach to solving the problem.

The most basic part of soft systems methodology is perception. The way the onlookers view the problem defines the basic way in which they approach it. If two people are both set to work on a project, their viewpoint will define the project as they work on it. This means that two people looking at an issue from different viewpoints may be unable to complete something for lack of common ground.

For example, if a factory was to catch fire and the onlookers were an environmentalist, a company executive and a firefighter, the three people would have radically different views on the action. The environmentalist would first look at the ecological impact of the fire through the smoke, burning chemicals and potentially hazardous water runoff. The business man would think about it in terms of lost production and hardware replacement costs. Lastly, the fireman would find the fastest and most efficient way to stop the fire from spreading and then extinguishing it. The different viewpoints lead to a problem finding common ground and, therefore, a stalled project.

By using a soft systems methodology, problem solvers can attempt to create a common viewpoint for everyone involved. The first step is finding something everyone agrees on and using that as a base. For instance, in the example above, everybody wants the fire put out. From there, people can define the steps necessary to move from the common ground to the eventual goal. This will let each party voice its approval or problems with planed steps as they come up.

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Discussion Comments


You're right, Glasis, a good manager should never assume that employees with different backgrounds can't work together to combine their varying interests to complete a project.

In fact, a boss should want as many people with different approaches and viewpoints as possible working together. That way, the brainstorming process is more thorough and innovative solutions are more likely.


The best business owner or manger is the one who has the ability to assess his employees and assign the right jobs to the right people. This includes taking into account which employees are likely to work best together on projects they will be asked to complete.

However, that does not mean that people with diverse backgrounds and expertise could not work well together, taking advantage of soft systems analysis.

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