Part 2 – How does SSM relates with group facilitation?
Simple answer: because it can assist the work of a group facilitator. This article and the next will explain why and how. Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is a powerful approach to complexity management developed by Peter Checkland and Brian Wilson in Lancaster University Management School. SSM is being used today mainly by Information Systems consultants as a first stage project methodology to ITC implementation projects. However, the scope of SSM is quite broad, and many users report applications in both private companies and not for profit organisations.
At the heart of SSM is an action research methodology. It compares the world as it is and some models of the world as it might be according to a given world-view. Out of this comparison arises a better understanding of the world (“research”) and useful ideas for improvement (“action”).
Group facilitators, who are looking for innovative conceptual approaches to process consulting, can have in SSM a powerful ally. Systems thinking is used in situations where the nature of a problem is ill-defined and requires a holistic view to foster better understanding. There are diverse systems’ approaches to group problem-solving. However most of these ‘systems approaches’ no matter how practical they can be, they do not take a phenomenological perspective about reality. Soft systems thinking is different because it starts from the premise that each person’s unique world-view is what makes reality real, and this subjective uniqueness should be reflected in our practical use of systems ideas.
SSM is a methodology that starts from such phenomenological premise and proposes a robust way to organise our practice and to enhance our intervention as process consultants. It is particularly useful whenever there are different perspectives on the nature of a situation and where consensus is unlikely. It starts by clearly identifying the problem situation as a system and the problem-solving consultant-client relationship. Who owns the problem? How will we know our intervention was successful? These sort of questions help to conduct an in-depth analysis of the situation that must be done upfront to guide our intervention better.
SSM prescribes simple techniques to inquire and intervene in a complex reality. A typical intervention typically starts with some ‘rich pictures’ that are drawn to map the problem situation. Its findings should help identify the most relevant models of conceptual systems to be used to generate consensus and drive action. The right level of group facilitation skills is crucial in all stages of SSM but especially in the last one – the model comparison. It is In this final phase where consensus is reached, and all the successful SSM practitioners had to learn consensus building skills by default. I could argue that unsuccessful applications of SSM are probably those where the consultants/analysts have not used proper group facilitation principles. If group facilitation principles are an essential requirement for successful SSM implementation, then this is good news for group facilitators. Your chances of success are higher than for every other average practitioner. In the next article, we will address how SSM is used in practice.
P.S. If you want to learn more about SSM and many other group facilitation approaches, please join me at the next IAF EMENA Conference 2-5 October here.
Picture from Australia Counselling: