The Difference Between Hard And Soft Systems Thinking


Wednesday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. – Donella H. Meadows

It is worth asking, every once in a while, where the ideas and opinions we have come from.

Take the word system, for example.

It’s a word that is used all the time in all kinds of situations.

We think of collections of things as systems – like computer systems and gaming systems.

We think of big, complex things as systems such as the justice system, the economic system or the financial system.

And thinking of things in this way causes us to come to a very simple, and very wrong conclusion.

We think of systems as being “real” – as existing for real in the outside world.

As real as flowers and ponies and tigers.

But, the thing is that the “system” only exists in your mind and in the minds of the people that you’ve shared your idea of the system with – or vice versa.

So, why is this important?

Many approaches over the last century have focused on our ability to create things that we call systems – and human beings have been very successful at making lots of cool things as a result.

People have made railways and rockets and medicine that actually works.

Now, having used such a way of thinking very successfully in certain situations – we often make the assumption that it will work equally well in any situation.

Which is why you get technical people who believe that they can build a solution to any problem because they have built a solution to a particular problem.

It’s an engineering mindset – and one that sits behind a number of approaches to problem solving – including AI and machine learning.

But history is also littered with failures of an engineering approach – what might be called a ‘hard’ approach to deal with problems that are not in its natural domain.

Problems that involve issues of politics and culture and belief, for instance.

Problems where it’s possible to prove that you can’t prove everything which, if you believe Godel, is the case with any system of logic.

So if you find you’re in a situation where you can’t “engineer” a solution – like how to deal with a problem like Brexit, or what to do about an ageing problem – you have a couple of choices.

The first is to plough ahead with a technical solution anyway – create a committee, set up a negotiating team, create backup plans and so on.

In others words – put systems in place.

Or you could look at the problem for what it is – complex and complicated or even, as Peter Checkland writes, mysterious.

The picture above is adapted from Checkland’s drawing of the hard and soft system approaches – and the basic thing to take away is that when a problem is complex what you can do is be systemic in the way you think rather than trying to make the world systemic.

This is a hard thing to wrap your head around, so let’s try an example.

If you are a manager and have an employee who is not performing what are you going to do?

Speak to HR? Fire the person? Go through a disciplinary process?

You’ve probably got a system – one that’s written out in the manual, one that can be defended if you have to go to court.

This rarely ends well for either party.

This system is also what makes it hard for women with young children to fully participate in work, for people who would like flexible work to get enough and for people to make the most of their talents.

You could argue that the system is broken.

Or you could realise that you just don’t know enough yet.

You don’t know enough about the employee – and why they are not performing.

You don’t know enough about yourself – the way you’re training, coaching and supporting your staff.

What you know is that you have a system and by gosh you’re going to follow it.

A soft approach is not a weak one – just one that realises that real world problems are almost always more complex than you realise.

How scary is the thought that you might need to actually sit down and listen and engage with the employee to understand what’s holding them back and how you can help them?

The thing about such an approach is not that you will get a result – but that you will, in the end, know you’ve done the right thing.

Not just done things right – the way the system tells you to do things.

But done the right thing for the situation you’re faced with right now.


Karthik Suresh

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