Book review: Learning for Action - Peter Checkland and John Poulter

Mar 26

Peter Checkland is pushing 80 and this book may well be a valedictory statement on his life’s work: soft systems methodology. For two reasons Checkland would like this to be a definitive account of the approach: first, because the authors are convinced that over the last decades the methodology has sufficiently matured to warrant full and definitive codification, and second, because something needs to stop the annoying profusion of faulty interpretations of SSM in the secondary literature. With this book, Checkland and Poulter are offering a bare bones, practical introduction to the methodology.

The book falls into two parts. The first one is conceptual and explains SSM in three passes (first a 5-page preamble for very busy people, then a skeleton version - about 20 pages long - followed by a more fleshed-out account). The second part is devoted to practical case studies, with one chapter focusing on management situations and another one on problematic situations in the field of information systems. Then there is a section on SSM “misunderstandings and craft skills”. The final few pages once more sum up the basic principles behind the approach. Five short appendices contain optional material on the theory, concepts and history.

Soft systems methodology is an enormously useful contribution to the field of systemic problem solving. It combines conceptual rigour with an enormous flexibility in application to real-world problematical situations. In its zen-like purity, simplicity and modesty it is almost aesthetic. The subtlety of SSM is reflected by its vocabulary. In SSM we don’t refer to “problems” but to “problematical situations”; we don’t talk about “organisations” but about “human activity systems”, not about “consensus” but about “accomodation”. All these differences are vitally important in steering away from a hard systems approach that objectifies the process of enquiry and the problem under study.

So, SSM may be simple but it certainly isn’t simplistic: applying SSM demands a very skilled and centered problem solver or facilitator. With the development of SSM, Checkland was one of the pioneers in creating problem-solving strategies that are more nimble, more adaptive, more local, and more socially robust than the heavy-handed, technical apparatus of erstwhile decision-making experts. Today this ethos of “learning for action” is taken further in the explosive development of action learning approaches worldwide.

I think this short, definitive account is a very welcome addition to the SSM literature and a good reference point for anyone - both beginners and more advanced professionals - wanting to learn more about the approach. However, I have one or two reservations about the book. In their discussion of craft skills, Checkland and Poulter focus on the application of the methodology. In my practical experience there is also a lot of craft skills involved in convincing potential clients to adopt the methodology. Indeed, “SSM” may not be the most helpful label to denote the approach. Many people instinctively shy away from the notion of “systems” - they think it has something to do with computers - or they assume that a “soft” methodology will hardly be capable of dealing with their “hard” problems. So some practical advice about how to build confidence in the approach with people that have not been initiated to it would be helpful.

Another skills issue which is overlooked in this book concerns working across the boundaries of a given organisation. Working with a dispersed set of actors brings its own challenges, such as lacking problem ownership and potentially much more outspoken tensions between interests and worldviews. I would love to have some practical advice on this aspect.

My second reservation concerns a conceptual point that lies at the heart of the methodology. SSM users create an organised process of enquiry and learning by making models of purposeful activity. Ironically, Checkland is very ideological about a non-ideological point, namely that these models should reflect a single, “pure” worldview, not some kind of consensus model everybody assumes to be a part of the real world. SSM-based activity models are conceptual devices to ask good questions about the real-world situation and nothing else. As these models only reflect one way of looking at reality and one is invariably working in the tectonic zone of non-overlapping (and potentially conflicting) worldviews, one usually doesn’t stop with developing one single activity model: one builds several models, each of them grafted on a particular worldview. This underlines the relative nature of each of these constructs and expands the basis for asking relevant questions.

However, in practical situations it may not always be so easy or even desirable to go beyond a single model. For example, in dealing with complexity people are prone to premature cognitive lock-in: they cling to the first speck of structure they see emerging from the chaos and are unwilling to go beyond and reaffirm the multiplicity by developing several activity models side by side. As a practitioner you may well be facing a problem solving team that would rather embrace a quasi-consensus than to keep several activity models in suspension. So I sometimes wonder whether the accomodation can also happen at a another point. If, for whatever reason, there is no basis to go beyond a single activity model, is it then possible to build a kind of consensus model in which there is a specific module dedicated to dealing with the tensions between different worldviews? The multiplicity remains, but is absorbed by the model itself. Checkland doesn’t entertain this option and I doubt that he has any sympathy for it. (It is, on the other hand, an approach that is defended by Brian Wilson, another very prominent practitioner of the methodology whose contribution to its development is nowhere acknowledged in Checkland’s definitive account).

A final, but minor point, is the fact that none of the section headings in the book is numbered. This makes navigating this slim volume unnecessarily complicated.

Despite these few reservations there is no doubt that this book deserves five stars for “lifetime achievement”. Thank you, Mr. Checkland.

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