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The soft systems methodology is a process used to work with situations that do not have a defined procedure. These situations are often difficult or complex and have stages heavily influenced by things like opinion, culture, knowledge of the situation or environment. This methodology establishes a set of rules that are used to define the process and start working towards the goals. In most cases, these methods rely on human systems to define problems and find solutions, rather than mathematical or scientific systems.
Contrary to what many believe, soft in ‘soft systems methodology’ refers to the methods used to determine a plan, not the systems involved. A soft problem is one that is made up of indefinable aspects like psychology or cultural identity, while a hard problem uses definable numbers and repeatable experimentation. In the same vein, a flexible approach uses flexible systems, while a rigid approach uses rigid systems. Even if the problem used rigid systems, a flexible systems methodology can still be used as an approach to solving the problem.
The most basic part of the soft systems methodology is perception. The way viewers see the problem defines the basic way they approach it. If two people are set to work on a project, their point of view will define the project as they work on it. This means that two people looking at an issue from different points of view may be unable to conclude something for lack of common ground.
For example, if a factory caught fire and the onlookers were an environmentalist, a company executive, and a firefighter, the three people would have radically different views on the action. The environmentalist would first examine the ecological impact of fire through smoke, flaming chemicals, and potentially dangerous water runoff. The entrepreneur would think of it in terms of lost production and hardware replacement costs. Lastly, the firefighter would find the quickest and most efficient way to stop the fire from spreading and then extinguish it. The different points of view lead to a problem of finding common ground and, therefore, to a stalled project.
Using a soft systems methodology, problem solvers can try to create a common point of view for everyone involved. The first step is to find something that everyone agrees on and use that as a basis. For example, in the example above, everyone wants the fire to be put out. From there, people can define the steps needed to move from common ground to the ultimate goal. This will allow each party to express approval or issues with the planned steps as they arise.