Soft System Methodology? Problem-Solving with Pizazz.

Source: The Process of Soft Systems Methodology ( Gasson, n.d.).

Assignment? Design a conceptual model that uses learning technologies to resolve a systemic complex problem. ( I’m learning some fun stuff now. )

Question? What is the best training solutions to solve complex problems that involve the actions of multiple people?

Soft Systems Methodology: How to solve complex problems in seven steps.

I remembered reading that a federal audit revealed program managers for a competitive and popular grant program were determined to be unable to accurately assess the eligibility of grant applicants or measure previous grantee performance because of incorrect, inconsistent, or inaccurate information in the agency’s databases. Since this is one of my favorite grant programs, I chose to use this problem as a system of interest and try applying the seven-step soft system methodology (SSM) to resolve it.

My first step was to take a closer look at the problem situation by performing a CATWOE (Customer, Actor(s), Worldview(s), Owner, Environmental) analysis. The analysis revealed I would be working with an unstructured “wicked problem.”  

“Wicked Problem” Solving Using Design Thinking

A soft systems problems qualifies “wicked” if the problem is unique and lacks (Buchanan, 1992):

  • A definitive formulation or solution;
  • Stopping rules or solutions;
  • No “pass-fail”, “true-false”, right-wrong”, or “good-bad” formative solutions or definitive test;
  • No exhausting list of possible worldviews (Weltanschauung);

The good news is that, for every wicked problem, there is the probability of a “one-shot” solution that results in subsequent responsible behaviors (p. 23-27). With the expressed wicked problem in mind, I used system design thinking to take a closer look.

My second step was to create a “rich picture” visual representation of the problem.  I chose to use Lucidcharts, which enabled me to create a diagram of the “real-world” problem environment as it currently exists (Checkland & Tsouvalis, 1997).  With my design thinking cap firmly perched on my head (metaphorically, of course), I realized the picture clearly depicted a Human Activity System ecosystem comprised of interconnected and interdependent sub-ecosystems (Rousseau, 2018: Valkokari, 2015) . The “players” appeared locked within habits of mind and bogged down and bound by linear bureaucratic policy directives and tons of paperwork. What the rich picture did not reflect was a system of accountability or checks and balances to ensure data integrity (Raven & Walrave, 2018; Roos, 2014).

Viola! A Human Activity System problem!  Easy peasy.  I’ve got decades of experience resolving such issues. (Can someone say, “comfort zone” for me, please? Thank you.)  Rich picture in hand – it was time to get busy.  I got immediately to work.

Soft System Conceptual Modeling

My third step was to create relevant root definitions I could use to communicate goals and objectives across multiple platforms.  That done, I moved to the fourth step of applying soft system thinking to create a conceptual instructional design model to address the root causes of the wicked problem.  The model would be used to train ecosystem leaders and employees as a cause of logic action

A comparison of the conceptual model to the current real-world problem situation was the fifth step. This would require an instructional design that breaks the rigid linear system (Lewin, 1951) by creating a transformative disorienting dilemma for the leaders involved (Mezirow, 1997).

Once leadership see, understand, and accept the patterns and trends depicted in the rich picture and support the need to support change,the sixth step is the use of standard andragogical theoretical underpinnings and instructional design principles to create a training program that helps learning group accept the rich picture’s prognosis, reject their assumptions about quick solutions, and how communication could be used to resolve resistance to change (Galbraith, 2014) . The instructional design includes maps of unintended consequences that might arise and points where collective activities can be leveraged to mitigate such effects (Anderson et al., 2014; Links, 2017; Nelson, Buisine, & Aoussat, 2013). 

Moving toward the finish line, my seventh step was to create an implementation and finished it off with a final eight step, which was designing an evaluation and sustainability plan. (See? Easy peasy.)

Jennie’s Perspective

Reflecting on my action learning experience, I realize that the key to solving most Human Activity Soft system problems may rest with ensuring that leaders and employees understand why change is needed.  Without getting this critical buy-in from the players, the change process can become uncomfortable and threatening because of the unknown. But, if you leave room for risks and errors, “wicked problems” can be solved and everyone celebrates (Lewin, 1951) Also, I feel it is essential to understand that you have to take care of the people during soft system changes. Otherwise, the patch may not fit for long.

Folks gotta learn how to deal with people.

I’m just sayin’ …


Anderson, N., Potočnik, K., & Zhou, J. (2014). Innovation and creativity in organizations: A state-of-the-science review, prospective commentary, and guiding framework. Journal of management40(5), 1297-1333.

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design issues8(2), 5-21.

Burnes, B. (2004). Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change: a re‐appraisal. Journal of Management studies41(6), 977-1002.

Galbraith, J. R. (2014). Designing organizations: Strategy, structure, and process at the business unit and enterprise levels. John Wiley & Sons.

Gasson, S. (n.d.). Susan Gasson, Academic Home Page. Retrieved from

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: selected theoretical papers (edited by dorwin cartwright.).

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education1997(74), 5-12.

Nelson, J., Buisine, S., & Aoussat, A. (2013). Anticipating the use of future things: Towards a framework for prospective use analysis in innovation design projects. Applied ergonomics44(6), 948-956.

Raven, R., & Walrave, B. (2018). Overcoming transformational failures through policy mixes in the dynamics of technological innovation systems. Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

Roos, G. (2014). Integrated innovation: The necessary route to profitability. In Strategic Approaches for Human Capital Management and Development in a Turbulent Economy (pp. 1-23). IGI Global.

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