Soft-Systems Thinking

Excerpted from Part Six of

‘Super-Smart Democracies: Dissolving Neoliberalism, Elitism and Managerialism’

In the 1970s, at Lancaster University, Peter Checkland and his colleagues1 began developing what they called a Soft Systems Methodology (SSM).

a systemic approach for tackling real-world problematic situations.

The human and technological components of soft-systems, operate in a complex web of relationships. Checkland and his colleagues labelled the complex problems arising in those soft-systems as ‘messes’. They invented this new term, because complex socio-technical ‘soft’ systems produce complex systemic problems that cannot be successfully tackled as one would ‘Hard-system’ problems.

Hard-systems can be extremely complicated: an airliner, a refinery, a computer, but if they have technical problems, the well-tried step-by-step strategies of systems engineering will eventually solve them. Applying the well-tried step-by-step strategies of systems engineering to try to solve soft-systems’ messes will only make the messes worse. 2

Checkland and his colleagues designed a seven-stage Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) that was intended to take account of the ‘messiness’ of problems that soft-systems produce. But, in spite of their dedication and the success of the methodology when applied in ‘the real world’ in action-research projects, overall the influence of the advocates of soft-systems methodologies on Western management cultures was marginal and transitory. For which, I believe, we can blame the encouragement of ‘macho-management’ under the Reagan-Thatcherite Neoliberal counter-revolution.

Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990, detested the whole idea of worker participation, especially if it was conflated with the pernicious ideal of industrial democracy. Instead, as Sir Roger Carr tells it3, Mrs. Thatcher

inspired, energised and empowered a new generation of ambitious business leaders, (who were) willing to seize the opportunity and recover the right to manage, reversing the tide of industrial decline that had taken hold in the UK.

Note the importance of ‘the right to manage’. In other words, the bosses take all the decisions and the rest have to do what their told. This macho-management model is the perfect recipe for what Stafford Beer calls `dysfunctional over-centrality’, and goes a long way to explain why

Over 90% of strategic plans are never implemented. Over 70% of change projects fail.4

For Super-Smart Democracies, Checkland’s definition of our societies as soft-systems, and of the problems they produce as ‘messes’ is very useful.

1Wilson, B. (1990) Systems: Concepts, Methodologies, and Applications, 2nd Edition, John Wiley & Sons Ltd

2 ‘Messes’ are another name for Wicked Problems, described in detail in Part One.

3 Sir Roger Carr: Margaret Thatcher’s industrial revolution allowed business to multiply. Daily Telegraph.13 Apr 2013

4. Patrick Hoverstedt. “The Fractal  Organisation: Creating Sustainable Organisations with the Viable Systems Model. Wiley 2008


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