What a Difference a Summer Makes

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am learning some fun stuff this summer.  So, I looked forward to writing this week’s blog post.

Question: What have I learned about using the rapid analysis and response process to solve complex soft system problems?

Hard versus Soft Systems Problems

Well. Let’s start at the beginning. I learned the difference between hard and soft system problems.  Specifically, I learned that hard systems problems, sometimes referred to as systems engineering, assumes an objective reality exists in the world where well-defined problems can be solved.  Period. The focus is usually placed on the technical aspects of a problem and the rigid scientific method approach is usually be employed to explore and determine an “ideal” solution to a problem.  By contrast, soft system problems, sometimes referred to human activity systems, have loose frameworks that can be fuzzy, vague, messy, or even poorly defined. There are usually differing subjective interpretations of the issues, but humans behaviors are normally the problem’s core. Soft system problems require creative, unique, and intuitive solutions and efforts are required to first define and understand the problem before any probable solutions can be conceptualized or conceived (Checkland & Haynes, 1994).

Complex versus “Wicked” Soft Systems Problems

Further, I learned that there are variations of soft system problems.  Complex soft system problems are typically defined as those that can be approached from multiple or competing perspectives and there are usually multiple possible solutions.  Conversely, “wicked” soft systems problems are unique and lack definitive formulations or solutions. There are usually no stopping rules or solutions, no “pass-fail,” “true-false,” right-wrong,” or “good-bad” formative solutions or definitive tests, and “wicked” soft systems problems do not have an exhaustive list of possible solutions because of the varying worldviews (Weltanschauung) usually seated at the table (Buchanan, 1992).

I also learned that, whether you are dealing with a complex or “wicked” soft system problem, you should put on your systems thinking cap. Probable solutions will most likely require instigating a change in the habits of the minds of those humans causing the problems.  So, as a soft systems practitioner, you should:

  • organize the human activity system’s view of the problem by helping them to understand the “big picture”;
  • show patterns and trends causing the issues;
  • prove the impacts of the problem on organizational operations;
  • help design and tests assumptions and concepts;
  • provide supports should unintended consequences surface; and
  • leverage all available resources within the system during the implementation of change.

This summer, I have learned to how use the research and evidence-based eight-step soft systems methodology to solve soft systems problems. In addition, I learned how to leverage my background in quality improvement and Total Quality Management and my applied technologies and performance improvement education during the planning, implementation, and evaluation phase of resolving soft system problem.

Yes. I have learned a lot over the last two months, and I can hardly wait to get busy.

Jennie’s Perspective

It seems funny to me sometimes how the old adage, “what goes around comes around” has a way of proving itself.  It sometimes appears that our lives are captured within a perfect hermeneutic circle where all things in our lives and experiences work together for our ultimate good as we stumble and bumble through the courses of our lives (Romans 8:28). 

When I decided to turn the page on what I’ve done in the past to explore a bright new horizon of opportunities, I never expected to end up back almost exactly where I started my journey: performance improvement.

Well. Who knows?  Maybe that was my destination all the time, and the last few years I have been progressively working my way down this path subconsciously.

At any rate, it feels good to walk familiar territory.  Because, as another old adage aptly declares, “Ain’t no place like home.”

I’m just sayin’ …


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

Checkland, P. B., & Haynes, M. G. (1994). Varieties of systems thinking: the case of soft systems methodology. System dynamics review, 10(2‐3), 189-197.

Polites, G. L., & Karahanna, E. (2013). The embeddedness of information systems habits in organizational and individual level routines: Development and disruption. Mis Quarterly, 221-246.

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