Soft systems methodology: a thirty year retrospective

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) can be used to gain understanding of complex relationship drive situations and their contexts. It was developed by the author of this research paper, Peter Checkland, as a comprehensive process which tried to ensure that both whole and parts of a situation were continually honed and refined in cycles of action.

"We use systems models because our focus is on coping with the complexity in everyday life, and that complexity is always, at least in part, a complexity of interacting and overlapping relationships." (Checkland 2000 p29)


 "Making drawings to indicate the many elements in any human situation is something which has characterized SSM from the start. Its rationale lies in the fact that the complexity of human affairs is always a complexity of multiple interacting relationships; and pictures are a better medium than linear prose for expressing relationships. Pictures can be taken in as a whole and help to encourage holistic rather than reductionist thinking about a situation." (Checkland 2000, p22)


This research paper explains how SSM is used to achieve sharp definition of a situation by:

  • Finding out about a problem situation, including culturally/politically;
  • Formulating some relevant purposeful activity models;
  • Debating the situation, using the models, seeking from that debate both
  • (a) changes which would improve the situation and are regarded as both desirable and (culturally) feasible, and
  • (b) the accommodations between conflicting interests which will enable action- to         improve to be taken;
  • Taking action in the situation to bring about improvement. Source: Checkland 2000 p21

Specific methods mentioned

  • Rich Picture Building  p22
  • Building Purposeful Activity Models p 26


Checkland P (2000) Research Paper. Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science Syst. Res. 17, S11–S58 

'Soft systems methodology: a thirty year retrospective' is referenced in: