Save Time, Money and Bloodshed with Soft System Discovery [VIDEO WEBINAR]

This webinar was given September 19.


Interviewer: Hello. And welcome, everyone, to the next installment of the Portent Webinar Series. My name is Ariana, and I will be your moderator for today’s webinar, which is breaking down barriers to drive success with Marianne Sweeny, our very own senior search strategist here at Portent.

We would love it if you would join in on this webinar. There are a couple of ways you can do that. You can ask questions within the GoToWebinar questions window, or you can tweet your questions using the hashtag #PortentU. So that’s hashtag P-O-R-T-E-N-T and the letter “U.”

And just so you know, in case you miss out on any of today’s webinar or want to review it later – don’t worry. You will receive a follow-up email, which will contain a link to this recorded webinar, a SlideShare link to the presentation slides, and a link bundle, which will contain all of the links to the resources that Marianne will be referencing in her webinar today.

So without further ado, please join me in welcoming Marianne. Hey, Marianne.

Marianne Sweeny: Hey. Hi, Ariana. Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining us for this somewhat unique, in terms of previous webinars from Portent, presentation. There’s a little schizophrenia going on here. You’ll notice there have been a couple of titles.

We’ve gone back and forth about how best to describe this. And I think both titles do. What we’re going to talk about instead of sort of specific PPC or analytics or SEO, as we’ve discussed in the past – we’re going to talk about the project itself, which encompasses all of those factors.

This is the hashtag that Ariana mentioned. So please tweet your questions in – or comments. And this will be the link bundle that you can download. You’ll find three resources that will give further information about how to do a client discovery using soft system methodology.

And this is me, Marianne. This is where I work at Portent. And they have given me a wonderful home, at which I am able to indulge in the magical thinking that led me to create this presentation.

I think we’ve all been involved in projects that have not gone quite as expected. And so the goal of this presentation and the goal of my introducing you to soft system methodology and client discovery is to make sure that we alleviate as much of the pain from project work as possible.

So let’s get started. In the early days of exploration, when mapmakers came to a part of the world that they did not understand, what they would do is just draw a dragon and say, “Here be dragons.” And that was basically a warning to everyone that they shouldn’t go there. There was danger there – and pain and suffering.

We might find that that is how we encounter many of our projects. There is a similar amount of unknown, and we move forward through that. Most projects have three players. There’s us – us being the delivery team. There’s them – them being the clients. And there’s their target, which is their customer or whomever they want to reach with whatever we are designing for them.

And every project starts, ostensibly, with a plan. But in actuality, what we find is that projects also have unstructured problems. And it’s hard to plan around unstructured problems for the simple reason stated here: they tend to not be static. They tend to have multiple individuals feeding into them, multiple stakeholders.

Oftentimes, these stakeholders have conflicting interests, which are not always revealed or articulated to us at the beginning of the project. There are uncertainties of many types, way too many to articulate in a slide. And on top of all of that are the various intangibles that we pick up along the way.

This is where client discovery comes in handy. It is during these sessions that you are able to sit down with your client and find out as much as possible about not just the project – “We want to build a new website. We want to redesign our homepage” – but the influences and the issues that led up to the decision to take the steps that brought you into the room.

Client discovery today oftentimes is limited to a sales contact, where your sales team will go out and make the initial contact and develop the client, and ultimately land the project. There might be a questionnaire that individuals on your team or in your company contributed questions to, that are submitted to someone at the client end, who will fill it out.

You’re lucky if there’s a client meeting. And this oftentimes takes the form of a kickoff meeting, where the delivery team will articulate what their process is and how the project will progress to completion. And then after that, there are emails and phone calls and more emails.

There might be a couple of internal meetings – standup meetings. There might a client meeting or two. Always more phone calls, more meetings, and meetings about the meetings. And then there’s email, email, email.

And so client discovery in these situations oftentimes looks like this: everybody sort of standing around in the field, in their own place, doing their own thing – not quite sure where we’re going, but waiting for instructions or moving ahead without instructions.

And the outcome of the kickoff meeting, the discovery meeting, whatever you refer to it as, is the finished questionnaire, a static document that is often placed on a share, that people can refer to throughout the history of the project, even though time may have passed, and the individual who filled out that questionnaire may no longer be involved in the project.

You also might get minutes from the meeting that you had, whether you call it a kickoff meeting or a client discovery meeting. Oftentimes, there’s the PowerPoint that the delivery team put together, that articulated their end of the project and how it would progress – in their minds, how it will progress. And there’s always that wonderful, expensive box lunch, where you get the big cookie.

Roadmap? Not so much. There’s rarely, if ever, a roadmap that comes out of a kickoff meeting, or at least one that provides the level of detail and shared understanding that a true client discovery would produce. This is exactly what I’ve asked myself many a time: “Where did I go wrong? Where can I find this?”

And that’s why a discovery session is so important. It’s important because engineers, those individuals who are directly involved in the project and oftentimes responsible for the platform or the environment, the technology environment in which the end product will reside and through which we have to work – engineers think that user behavior is predictable. And they have to think that way because that is how coding works best – is if you have a set of consistent and predictable scenarios, that you can then develop a solution for that particular situation or scenario.

Engineers believe that processes can be automated, and they also believe that the end result is the discreet and individual transmission of an output of some sort. And that is usually information, as many of us are working in the world of information technology.

But in the real world, we know that information behavior is not consistent; it’s interpretive. I take what I have in my surroundings, in my emotional state, in my past behavior, and I move that forward, gathering information, so that it changes in relation not only to the unique situation, but to what I am building as I go along.

User behavior changes according to the context – where they are, what constraints they have. And the information is not just the discreet output from the system. It is what I had going in that led me to engage with the system, and it is how I process that information, upon having finished with my engagement.

So system thinking sees the world as very linear, sequential – if then, if then, if then. It is object-oriented, meaning it’s usually encapsulated or contained within a certain set of: “This is what we want. These are the requirements. This is the deliverable. And we’re done.”

It assumes that the users are very mechanistic and passive, and so there will be served data or information or experience, and that these will be discreet items in a contained situation. Well, outside of Star Trek, the real world is chaotic and subjective. You do not have a mechanistic, passive user. You have a constructivist, active user. It may not seem that way within the element that you are designing or within the website that you are working on.

And this user has a holistic view that encompasses elements and criteria that are not articulated by the user, or may exist outside of the environment or your project. And there’s also the internal cognition that goes on with users, and the fact that their experience with what you are doing can span many situations.

This is where soft system methodology comes in best. Soft system methodology is an idea that we would develop better systems, and we would develop better projects if we had a better understanding of the scope, the nature, and the impact of the system for us, the user experience professionals.

And the IT end would understand better the users that they are developing for, if they had a closer connection with that mindset. Soft system methodology was designed by Peter Checkland about 30 years ago. And what he noticed, as exemplified here, is that engineers kept struggling with how to incorporate this human element into their design system, and found that the best way to do so would be to integrate the technologists and the user experience people and the client and the stakeholders – to integrate them very, very early in the project.

So the idea behind soft system methodology is that you use this process – and we’re going to get to the specifics of that in a minute – you use that to get information about various system components for various members and teams that are part of the execution. You identify all of the systems that are involved in the environment that you’re working in, and in delivering what will be considered project success.

And that doesn’t just mean technology systems; it means user systems also and client systems. And then you use this information to structure an analysis and design a process that facilitates mapping the information that you’ve gathered to the issues that you’re setting out to solve.

So Stage 1 of soft system methodology would be to build a consensus model. And the way that you do that is to get all parties in a room. This is not always possible, but strongly encouraged, and beyond the scope of an hour-long meeting of the delivery team saying, “This is how it’s going to do it.”

What you want is to get people in a room and really talking about why this project is moving forward, what their role is – and then find out how their role, how their participation is going to integrate with other individuals on the client side and on the project team side. You want to express these issues in a way that everyone can understand and consume.

So that means discussion, hopefully reaching consensus, and then building a model. And it can be those little Lego models that we’re all familiar with, or it can be a sketching model, or it can be a PowerPoint model, or a Visio model – whatever works for everyone, so that everyone has a basic understanding, and can refer back, consume, and change, as the project iterates.

You come to an agreement with regard to: “What is it that we’re going to work on? How is it going to change? And what is it going to look at, at the end?” And with that agreement, you now can design action plans that will carry out the ultimate end result transformation.

And this is all done through a process of accommodation in the room with everyone, not the accommodation that comes from when I deliver my user experience designs to the IT department, and the IT department looks at them and says, “We can’t do this” or “Really? Wow. This is going to add another 60 hours of dev work to the project.”

And then you execute. You execute on the action plans, and you develop and then proceed on purposeful activities that everyone is aware of, that map to the same end result.

Soft system methodology uses an acronym CATWOE. And these elements are the customers, who benefit from the system that will be transformed, the actors who are going to facilitate the transformation, and the world views that give the transformation meaning. Those worlds are the individuals who are on the client side, that have initiated the project and have expectations of what the end result is going to look like, and also the world views of the project team, who are bringing expertise to the project that will make it a success, and also, as best possible, the world views of the end users, those people who are going to experience the system, experience the transformation.

It also involves the owner. There is always that individual who is revealed, oftentimes too late in the process, who is the real owner of the project. We always want to make sure that we know who is the person – who is the go/no-go person for the project. There’s one. And that individual hopefully will be made known to everyone on the project, and will be kept aware of what is going on, so there will be no late surprises.

And, finally, the environment – the constraints, both system and people powered, that will influence the outcome and success of the project. “So what,” you say? Hmm. Well, using a soft system approach, using a discovery method early on in a project will take project participation from this – “I am looking at my discreet area of the project” to this – “I am looking at my discreet area of the project in relation to the project as a whole.”

Ian Lurie, my boss here at Portent, said something that resonated with me and really influenced me setting out to learn more about soft system and adapting it into what became this webinar. And the comment that he made, that resonated with me, was: “Sometimes you have to spend $15.00 to save $45.00.”

I did a version of this presentation for the company – my company here at Portent – earlier in the week. And I started it out by asking: “How many individuals in this room have gone over their time budget due to unexpected consequences involved in the project like: I didn’t have all of the information. Or new information became available?” About 80 percent of the hands went up.

So this is why creating some sort of a client engagement early on, whether it’s two hours, four hours, eight hours, two days – whether it’s an all-in person or some on the client side and some associated through Skype or Google Hangout – this is why it is so important. Because I guarantee you that two hours, four hours, eight hours in the beginning of the project is going to save tens, if not hundreds of hours, both on the client side and on the delivery team side down the line.

So let’s take a closer look at soft system methodology and client discovery. What we want to do is – we want to discover the client world views. We want to learn more about the environment from which this project has emerged.

And, more importantly, we want to learn more about the cultural and political influences that are a part of this project, which may not be revealed in a kickoff meeting. It may not be revealed in a sales call. But it will definitely impact the success of the project.

We want to reveal the interacting systems within the organization – both our systems and the clients. I’ve had two experiences where clients – where it has been revealed, quite far into the project, that – in one situation, the client was upgrading to SharePoint 2010 for their website hosting.

That has a very strong influence on my work. And it certainly had an influence on the work done previously and on the work done moving forward. There was another client who it was revealed, down the line, could not move forward on a lot of the recommendations that we were making because their hosting platform was ancient. Their content management system was so ancient.

So basically in that situation, I have been doing a lot of work that was not useful to the client. Because they couldn’t do any of that. Again, client discovery – had we known all of this moving in, then I could have adjusted my focus on their issues, to accommodate their system.

We also want to define the user purposeful activity, whether that user is the IT professional at the client side or the customer for the website that we’re working on. we want to clearly define the various user purposeful activities, and make sure that everyone is aware of the problems that we’re trying to solve, and are part of designing those solutions.

And, finally, we want to shift our thinking. We want to shift our thinking away from optimizing for the technology, whether that’s the rich media components that we’re putting together – the video stream, the platform, the content management system – and we want to start looking at the end user experience. What is going to happen when somebody looks at that page?

What is going to happen when they click on the link, more importantly than what happens from the system end, when the link is clicked. And last, but not least, we want to understand that nothing can be carved in stone when we are working on technology solutions and digital solutions.

I have some friends who commenced on building a house. He’s an engineer at Boeing. They were confident. They were confident, based on the project plan that started, that they would be in their house four months ago. As you can see, they are not in their house.

And, in point of fact, they are not going to be in their house until mid-November. And it has to do with the fact that because one workman slipped, another workman couldn’t start. And he had other jobs backed up.

So this happens throughout many projects, whether it’s home construction or site construction. We have to be aware. We have to be flexible, so that this can become this, so that people are working together, all of the components are working together, and we have a very clear understanding of environments and constraints.

And what are the soft system discovery outcomes? Well, the client specific CATWOE – the outcomes that we want – are: who are the customers? All of the customers – with the client and then with their customers, who are going to be using the project that we are working on – the outcome, whether it’s a website or a product or an application.

We want to be really clear about who is doing the work. And what are the constraints that they are experiencing? And how can we alleviate them, as a team?

We want to make sure that we understand completely all of the world views that are governing this project – not just the project manager and not just the point of contact within the company, and not just the SEO, and not just the content writer, but all of the world views – from the stakeholders, from the go/no-go guy, from the marketing department, from the IT people, and also, as best possible, from the individuals who are going to be using the site, the app, the project outcome.

We want to make sure that we know who owns the project. In previous occupations, I have worked at length with some very large enterprise clients. And there’s one, in particular, where at another agency, we would assign – I wouldn’t call it a penalty. But we would basically boost the job estimate by 15 percent. We would put a 15 percent contingency in there.

Because inevitably with this client, as you got towards the end of the project, when you were getting ready to deliver, some mysterious uber stakeholder would come out of the woodwork and say, “What? I hate that. And I need you to make all of these changes right now” – changes that were not involved in the original bid, and also changes that were likely not going to be approved in a change order. So we would just add a contingency fee.

Not everyone can do this. The best way would be, as I said, to make sure that you are aware of the entire chain of command for your client, and that those individuals are aware of what you’re doing, and that their world view is incorporated.

We also want to make sure that we are fully aware of all the environmental influences, both at the client and our end, that they’re aware of the environmental influences and constraints at ours. We want to make sure that we know all of the system involved – hosting and dev and content and people-powered. And we want to make sure that we are all aware of what inputs are going to be transformed, and what those outputs look like post-transformation.

That is achieved. We can then start with purposeful activity that will result in useful outcomes. We will know that our models of the real world either fit or stand out, that the models that we have developed will fit in the real world scenario that we are going to have to work in.

We will have shared amongst us a list of agreed upon milestones and tasks that contain as few surprises as possible. And we’ll have meaningful action plans that we can revisit and iterate and adjust as a unit.

And what that does is – it will save time. And for our clients and for ourselves, time is something that we cannot get more of. We cannot afford to waste it. We’ll save money because we won’t be having to redo work. We won’t be offering suggestions or guidance that is not useful. We will have very satisfied clients.

And, more importantly, they will have very satisfied customers. And, in the end, we’re going to have an end result where everything lines up perfectly, and you don’t have a number of random issues that tend to derail projects, or surprises that tend to absorb time that could be better spent elsewhere.

And that is how I would do a soft system methodology project, and encourage all of you to do the same. So this is, again, the link bundle. As you can see, there’s a little font conflict going on there. Evidently I didn’t fully understand the system that was going to be displaying the PowerPoint.

Interviewer: Thank you, Marianne. That was very educational. So now don’t forget – all the resources that Marianne referenced will be in the bundle, which you saw in the previous slide. And the bundles are case sensitive, so I think it’s all lowercase on the end part.

We are opening it up for questions and answers. So remember to put your questions in the webinar question box or tweet us at #PortentU.

So let’s see what we’ve got. They’re right here. Okay. Any questions? Let’s see. We’ve got one question here from Rebecca. “How do you envision incorporating soft system methodology across a full marketing team? How would you decide which departments are involved? Is it case by case?”

Marianne Sweeny: You know I think it is case by case. And thank you for the question, Rebecca. I think it is case by case. And you will notice that this presentation was somewhat shy of prescriptive guidance like: “Do this. Have this meeting. Have all of these components in the meeting.” It is really up to the project itself.

The initial contact is made through sales, and they would definitely be able to provide someone who you would then want to talk to about setting up a sustained meeting. I suggest anywhere from two to four hours. And segment that, so that individuals at the client end will be able to come and go as needed.

It’s really hard to get IT guys to stay in a room for four hours. But you can certainly get them for part of the meeting. So starting with the point of contact, you would then roll out and say, “In terms of this project –” Let’s say we’re doing a website redesign. “Who is currently involved in maintaining and supporting the website?”

And that would likely be marketing, corporate communication, IT, Q&A. “And who, at the delivery side, is involved in making this project successful?”

So at the Portent end, it would, again, be content, sales, SEO, analytics, so that we can measure our success. Getting all of those components – taking it from the component level of who is involved – currently involved in the project – who need to be involved. That group then starts to build out and say, “Now who is the individual, the overarching stakeholder for this project? And what are their concerns?”

And start from there, and hopefully get somebody on the client site, or get clients to come to your offices, so that there can be lengthy discussions about their culture, why this project came up. What was behind – what’s the pain point? And why did it get to a certain point, that then made it critical to move forward with the project?

Interviewer: Okay. Thanks so much, Marianne. Question from Sandra. “Are there any companies or organizations that are doing SSM well?”

Marianne Sweeny: I would say that – you know my experience at Microsoft says that there are groups within Microsoft that do soft system methodology very well. It is certainly a commitment. There are other agencies that are offering client discovery, that would be utilizing some of the soft system methodology that we’ve talked about here.

So there are two parts to this. One is there are agencies – the big agencies are usually the ones that have the luxury of it – that can do client discovery meetings that are fairly elaborate and garner this information – the delivery team being able to inform the client, and then being able to extract information from the client.

The soft system methodology part is really, to me, the most critical. Because it incorporates the IT, the systems engineers in, so that you are not only getting a client agency shift in information, but you’re also getting a technologist/non-technologist transfer of information. I don’t know of anyone who’s specifically doing that.

Interviewer: Okay. Next question from Mary. “How does soft system methodology compare or contrast with agile methodology? Seems like it grew out of agile methodology.”

Marianne Sweeny: Soft system, in terms of this, is specific to, as I said, information transfer and gathering. Agile is really a project management technique. So it’s very specific to project management, where the project is divided into discreet, atomistic components that are called “sprints.”

So basically what you say is: “We are going to design the user interface for the homepage.” That’s a two-week sprint, and it involves the SEO. It involves the content people, and it involves the Web devs.

And we’ll have these meetings, and people are going to be working very close proximity, so that they can participate and influence work as it goes – as the work progresses. So agile would certainly be a part or a follow-on for soft system methodology, and it likely would be used by the dev teams.

Once the soft system discovery reveals sort of the path and the action plans and the purposeful activity, then agile, as a form of project management, would come into play. I mean it’s the preferred way of project management now – the other being waterfall, for those of you who are not familiar with agile, where you have sort of a more sequential: “I finish my work; I hand it off to you. You do your work; you hand it off to someone else.”

Interviewer: Whereas agile is teams working in –

Marianne Sweeny: It is. Everyone is working in a sprint. So there’s no hand-off. You’re basically working together, and you complete that one discreet action.

Interviewer: Yeah. That’s great. Elizabeth asks, “What are the barriers to entry?”

Marianne Sweeny: Probably the barrier to entry for many delivery teams for this would be taking the time to build the soft system discovery infrastructure. And there is some time. Using Ian’s maxim, we’re going to spend $15.00 to save $45.00.

Delivery teams would need to spend some time, whether it’s 4, 6, 8, 16 hours, to develop the collateral that they need to carry out a successful soft system client discovery session. That collateral could be repurposed and tailored to further clients. So you would leverage the time and effort expense in there.

But what you save – going back to my experience yesterday, asking my coworkers, “How many of you have gone over your allotted time because you had to accommodate surprises, or information, or a mysterious stakeholder, or work that wasn’t as useful as it should be?” In the end, you end up saving much more.

Interviewer: That makes sense. It’s a lot of the planning piece. If you spend more time planning, you have fewer hiccups later on. Right?

Marianne Sweeny: Exactly.

Interviewer: Another question from Elizabeth. “What resources do you recommend to find out more for implementation? Are there any classes or things?”

Marianne Sweeny: There’s really not. Interesting enough, soft system methodology is sort of coming into a Renaissance. As I mentioned before, this was really developed in the sixties, when they were doing more project development engineering and such. And that’s where Checkland came up with soft system.

Because he said, “We’ve spent so much time developing this product. And then we see customers who are banging it on the desk because it’s not working the way that they want it to work.” And certainly anyone who’s used Windows 8 would have appreciated a soft system approach to the development of that. So I think that has created somewhat of a resurgence in soft system methodology.

Most of the information about it is from information systems development – Bell Systems and such. And so this – the magical thinking that Portent has afforded me to do – is one of the few instances I know of, of taking this and mapping it to something outside of an IT or an information systems environment.

And I’m very excited about it, and I’m hoping that you all will then take it, and incorporate it, and use it, and adapt it, and iterate it for your environment. In the link bundle, I have included an article that was written by Checkland in the year 2000, where he basically sort of revisits, after 30 years, soft system methodology, and applies it to this sort of new environment that we were at then – a technology environment and a Web-based environment.

Interviewer: Okay. Another question here: “I have a small business, and my clients have small budgets. Is there a way to scale this down in time to me and price to them? Or is it better for the big guys?”

Marianne Sweeny: No. I think that it absolutely should be adaptable to minor engagements, and one that you could split out and offer as a standalone. Most of the agencies that I’ve worked with have done that.

They’ve treated it as a standalone – an initial touch, an initial contact with the client, knowing that the client, at the end, would get this collateral, which basically defines what it is that they want to do. It’s a very useful exercise for them.

So for you, if you have a very small business, I would say, again, design the collateral that you need for a successful discovery session. And that would be: “What are you bringing to the project?” That sort of: “This is how I work” and whatever.

And then accommodate a discovery session, whether it’s over the phone, if you can’t afford to travel or don’t want to travel, or over Skype, where you have already developed a series of questions, that you can engage in a discovery with the client, and knowing what we know now about soft system – that you are asking questions about the systems and the subsystems, and the various individuals that are going to be part of the actors, that are going to be part of the project, that you can get all that information out early on and in an efficient way.

Interviewer: Are there any other questions out there in the webinar world? Another question popped up. “So after you’ve gathered all this information, where do I start?”

Marianne Sweeny: Well, I would start with the next project that comes across your desk. I mean literally, if you’re with an agency, I would select a client – an upcoming client – that you can use as a beta test for this, on what works and what doesn’t work, and then start there. It’s never too early to start sort of looking at: “How have I dealt with projects in the past? Where have they gone off the track? And how can I prevent that from happening?”

And then applying the techniques that we have talked about here – the consensus, the modeling, the iteration, and, most importantly, the incorporation of world view. So that’s where I would start. I’ve given you a really good article in the link bundle that sort of goes into more detail.

And then: “How can I do this? How can I make my outcomes more meaningful than just this dead, static questionnaire that was done years ago?” And don’t forget the big cookie and a PowerPoint apple.

It’s all about a continuing sort of group association focus on the end result, and making sure that everybody really understands and keeps in their mind what that end result is, and what role that they are playing, as a brick, in creating what will, in the end result, be a very strong brick wall.

Interviewer: Awesome. If you don’t have any more questions in the next couple of minutes, we’ll go ahead and conclude. But remember, you can put the question in the webinar question window or tweet it to us. Anything else you want to add, Marianne?

Marianne Sweeny: I think that we all want to deliver the best work for our clients’ interests, and do that in an efficient way. And I just believe firmly that this approach, the consolidated approach, the one that includes incorporating everyone’s world view early on, is critical to doing that.

And it’s going to help us deliver better work more efficiently. So I hope that this has been useful for you, and I hope that you all go out and learn more about soft system methodology and encourage your workplace to use it.

Interviewer: Okay. Awesome. Well, thank you, Marianne. Don’t forget – if you have more questions for her, you can tweet them directly at @MSweeny on Twitter. Make sure you use the hashtag #PortentU.

Just a reminder for today’s amazing webinar from Marianne – the presentation slides and all the links will be coming your way in a follow-up email. Join us next month, in October, for a webinar from our director of SEO, Josh Patrice, who will be attending the conversion conference next week or early in October. And he’ll be sharing what he learns from that. So it’ll be very interesting.

Details about the webinar can be found on our webinar tab on our Facebook page, which is You can also find it on our homepage. Thank you, everyone, and have a great day.

Marianne Sweeny: Thanks, everyone.

[End of Audio]

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