Soft Systems Methodology

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is a creative, iterative, flexible way of researching real-world problems. It is an action-oriented approach, developed to study a complex situation and then act purposefully to improve it. As such, SSM is well-suited to the challenge of understanding the experiences, needs and challenges of people and families with addictions and mental health needs in Waterloo  Wellington. 

As “an organized way of tackling messy situations in the real world” 1, SSM is suitable for the complex issue of improving the experience of children, youth and families with mental health needs. 

SSM is based on the premise that, no matter the situation, the people experiencing it will hold diverse and sometimes conflicting worldviews— different ways of perceiving a situation based on internalized assumptions formed from previous and unique experiences.2 At its most fundamental, SSM requires the worldviews of all stakeholders to be acknowledged, accepted as valid, and made explicit.3

SSM provides researchers with the permission to accept every experience as valid—an important tenet in design research as part of a design thinking process. Acknowledging the validity of every worldview does not mean that every story happened exactly as it was told, but rather, accepts the experience as true—how someone feels in a situation, and how they perceive a situation to occur cannot be invalidated. By engaging in research in this way, it becomes possible to answer questions about the situation and develop a model of the problem that all stakeholders can agree on.

SSM requires people to hold multiple worldviews in their mind as valid, then to search together for a new model that fits the worldviews in a way that is acceptable to all stakeholders. Rather than debating or rejecting conflicting worldviews, the experiences and worldviews of stakeholders are accepted as real, and the question becomes, how might we ensure that the experience feels different for this person given their worldview? This approach provides the foundation for consensus-based facilitated discussion, resulting in collective action toward a common vision. 


  1. Checkland, P., & Scholes, J. (1990). Soft Systems Methodology in Action. Chichester, West Sussex, England: Wiley. 
  2. Checkland, P., and J. Poulter. “Soft Systems Methodology.” Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide. Ed. S. Holwell. London: Springer-Verlag, 2010. 191-241. Print. 
  3. Polaine, A., Løvlie, L., & Reason, B. (2013). Service Design: From Insight to Implementation (p. 38 – 40). Brooklyn, New York: Rosenfeld Media.