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Soft Systems Methodology for Business Analysis

Soft systems methodology is an approach that an analyst can embrace when phasing messy and complex problems. SSM is a way of organizing, thinking and learning in a problematic situation.[1] [2]This methodology allows the observer, faced with a vague and unstructured problem situation, the possibility to approach as holistically as possible, concentrating, combining and co-housing all existing perceptions and to suggest ways to improve the existing situation.

Business Analysts can use Analysis with SSM before the analysis and design of an information system begins (i.e. before using UML or a traditional structured development methodology).


The Methodology

A basic pillar of the methodology is the distinction between the real world and the systems thinking about real world. The methodology recognizes the complexity of the modern world and tries to reconcile the mental models we try to construct to simplify the world with the real needs and environment upon which any change will be implemented.

In addition to eliciting the perspectives from different stakeholders, it is also important to investigate different perspectives of the problematical situation.

This involves analyses of:

  1. The intervention, including the actors involved,
  2. The socio-cultural context including roles, norms and values and
  3. Existing power structures

The following diagram depicts seven-stage model of SSM (adapted from Checkland & Scholes, 1990, p. 27)


We can group the activities in the real world versus the activities in systems thinking.

Ιn real world:

  • First: we learn/analyze the problematic situation
  • Ultimately: we intervene with the aim of bringing about improvements

Systems thinking include:

  • Identifying relevant systems of human activity with ‘key definitions’
  • Creating mental models from the basic definitions



1st Step:

To understand the complex problem situation we use the rich image.

Emphasis is placed on illustrating the following:

  • roles in the system and views,
  • disputes and controversies,
  • system limit,
  • elements of the environment

An example of rich image is given below:





2nd Step:

In the next stages of the methodology (systems thinking) we create basic definitions and then a mental model of the system.

The basic definition can follow the following structure:

  • Do P by Q in order to contribute to achieving R” (P = what? Q = how? R = why?)
  • CATWOE is a good way to think holistically about actors.[3]

A mental model is an explanation of how something works. The phrase “mental model” is an overarching term for any sort of concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind.[4]

The following diagram represents the structure of a simple mental model.


3rd Step:

Finally we return to the “real world” for the last 3 stages of the methodology, aiming to make effective changes to the problem situation.

Collaborative learning is achieved through the SSM process.  Development of shared meaning and understanding across individuals and groups are enabled and can ensure faster requirements elicitation and more precise requirements that will add value to the different stakeholders.



The internal and external conditions are complex, interdependent and unique. Either the change of only an internal or external component creates a different dynamic and a different system and may trigger a chain of events that can affect indirectly other components. The “Ceteris paribus” assumption in some microeconomics models seems to be utopia in the modern business environment. Systems thinking and the holistic approach are basic characteristics for effective conduction of business analysis. SSM encapsulates the systems thinking mindset and can be a useful methodology in the pre-analysis and/or early analysis phases.


[1] Checkland P. Systems thinking, systems practice. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons; 1981
[2] Checkland P, Poulter J. Learning for action: a short definitive account of soft systems methodology and its use, for practitioners, teachers and students. John Wiley and Sons Ltd: Chichester; 2006.
[3] CATWOE Analysis: A Holistic Approach to Problem Solving – SlideModel
[4] Mental Models: Learn How to Think Better and Gain a Mental Edge (

Giorgos Sioutzos

Giorgos Sioutzos is an experienced business analyst currently working at Netcompany in the social security sector. He holds a BSc in Management Science and Technology from Athens University of Economics and Business and Msc in International Business & Management from ALBA Graduate Business School. Numerus articles about business analysis have been published in most reputable Greek and foreign media. He has created educational videos for IIBA Knowelge Hub. Also he has contributed as an SME for Global Business Analysis Survey creation from IIBA. Certifications: CBAP, PMI-PBA, ITIL, PRINCE2, CPRE Advanced