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Describing your problem formally

One formal problem structuring technique is CATWOE, based on specific rules and conventions drawn from experiences, as this article explains.
In some situations, often after first exploring a problem with an informal technique, it might be necessary to implement a more formal one.
These are formal in the sense that they are based upon specific rules and conventions drawn from the experience of others. Such rules and conventions can help to guide the process, and help navigate and express a complex problem situation, based upon best practice.
Some may find these formal techniques too constraining at first. Their rules require practice and can restrict more creative ways to explore the problem. However, they usually allow for more powerful and advanced analysis and, because they use an established common language, they can aid communications between people who have encountered them before.

CATWOE

CATWOE is another tool that forms part of Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology, along with Rich Pictures (see Checkland 2001). In some ways it is similar to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘six honest serving men’.
CATWOE is a mnemonic used to identify the people, processes and environment that contribute to a situation, issue or problem under analysis. Each of the letters is a prompt to think about a different aspect of the problem.
The whole Soft Systems Methodology is useful in complex, messy situations when there are divergent views about the definition of the problem, or when the actual problem to be addressed cannot be agreed upon. For example, ‘how can we improve the NHS?’ or ‘how do you address homelessness?’.
When using CATWOE, you consider a situation from six different perspectives:
Customers
Who are the people (groups or individuals) who will benefit (or potentially be harmed) from your innovations/intervention to improve the problem situation? How do the issues currently affect them?
Actors
Who is involved in the situation? More specifically, who will be involved in implementing the transformation you propose?
Transformation
What processes or systems are affected by the issue? What is the process that will result in the customers’ needs being met? What changes will take place? At this stage don’t worry about how this transformation will be enacted, just focus upon the transformation itself.
Worldview
What is the big picture that would make improving the problem situation a worthwhile thing to do? What are the wider impacts of the issue?
Owner
Who owns the process or situation you are investigating? Crucially, who has the power to stop you from carrying out the transformation?
Environmental Constraints
What are the constraints and limitations outside of your control that will impact the solution and its success?
The value lies in the process of thinking through these questions. However, it can also help you to form a concise verbal statement of the problem situation as it currently exists, or how you would like it to be, known as a ‘Root Definition’ of the problem. This can be beneficial for communicating with others.
In Soft Systems Methodology, a Root Definition takes the following form:
“A system owned by [OWNERS], where [ACTORS] perform [TRANSFORMATION] on behalf of [CUSTOMERS] because [WORLDVIEW], but limited by [ENVIRONMENT].”
For example, if the problem situation involved a business proposition to help thirsty people at a railway station we might find it useful to consider each of the CATWOE:
CustomersCommuters and travellers
ActorsBaristas
TransformationThe preparation of roasted coffee beans and hot water into a beverage
WorldviewCustomers value the taste and benefits
OwnersCostabucks
EnvironmentLocation and commercial pressures from competitors and suppliers
This could be rewritten as the following Root Definition of our problem situation:
“A system owned by Costabucks, where baristas perform the preparation of roasted coffee beans and hot water into a beverage on behalf of commuters and travellers because they value the taste and benefits, but limited by location and commercial pressures from competitors and suppliers.
This simple example helps to illustrate the process, but ultimately it is a situation with little uncertainty or complexity, so CATWOE and Soft Systems Methodology may not be necessary here. These approaches become valuable when dealing with complex problem situations.
Checkland, P.B. (2001). ‘Soft Systems Methodology’, in Rosenhead, J. and Mingers, J. (eds), Rational Analysis for a Problematic World Revisited. Wiley, Chichester

Apply CATWOE to a real problem

If you analysed a problem using the questions in I Keep Six Honest Serving Men, or by using the Cynefin framework, now have a go turning that analysis into a more formal CATWOE description, using the framework above.
  • Would this help you to understand or explain your problem better?
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