Using the CATWOE checklist

Darryl Bachmeier
Sep 11, 2019
Strategy


Have you ever been in a situation in which you approved a project from your boss and started to work on it only to face strong resistance from the workers who are supposed to help you implement it in the first place?

Or maybe you came up with an innovative idea for a project which your colleagues fully supported but which got struck down when you presented it in front of the owner?

This happens frequently when a project involves a number of stakeholders who view the central problem or solution from different perspectives.

For example, a quarry that mines limestone is a source of profits for the investors and a source of employment for the workers. However, when difficult times arrive and profits turn into losses, both groups will have completely different solutions in mind. The investor might want to lay off workers to reduce the cost whereas the workers might propose further exploration and longer hours.

So how do you make sure you consider all perspectives when trying to define a problem or implement a solution so that you don’t have to run into conflicts that choke your progress?

The CATWOE checklist

The CATWOE checklist is a systems thinking tool which was introduced as part of the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) by Peter Checkland.

In essence, the checklist provides a framework which can help you consider a problem or solution from the perspective of various stakeholders. It allows you to anticipate the potential conflicts and disagreements that could arise based on the unique viewpoint of each stakeholder.

By stimulating thinking in this manner, you can arrive at problem definitions that are much closer to the root definition and make compromises to your solutions that satisfy everyone and help you accelerate progress.

Let’s take a deeper look into the CATWOE checklist:

Clients

These are the end-users and customers who receive the output of your business. Keep in mind that at the end of the day, it is these people you should care about most because they bring revenue to your business and buy your products.

It is worth thinking about who these people are and how they will be affected by what you are trying to do. How do they stand to benefit from your project? What problem of theirs are you solving?

Actors

Actors are the cogs and wheels you will depend on to get your project executed. These are the on-ground workers and team members who can either speed up your work or bring it to a grinding halt.

You need to consider how the changes you are going to make will impact them and how they will react to those changes. Will they be on board with your plans? If not, what reservations will they have about your project?

Transformation

Think of this as whatever activity you are performing on the inputs in your project to convert them into valuable outputs. What processes and changes is your project based on?

Also think about the inputs and outputs. What are these in the context of your project? Where are these coming from? How will the inputs be changed?

Worldview

The worldview, or “Weltanschauung”, asks you to zoom out and consider the big picture. Ask yourself what overall impact your project will have on the organization, its customers, and its surroundings.

What is the social, technological, economic, or cultural significance of what you are doing? What wider problem or issue are you addressing through this activity?

Owner

The owner can be anyone who is in a position of power and can affect the direction of your activity or project. The owner could be the actual owner of the company or simply a manager responsible for taking a decision on a series of actions.

When thinking about the owner’s perspective, you need to consider how they will react to your proposal. Will they block it or approve it? What can you do to make it more likely that they will approve it and not reject it?

Environment

Finally, the environment refers to the parameters within which your activity can work. These could be legal, environmental, ethical, geographical, financial, or political constraints within which you have to remain.

So when formulating your problem or proposal, you must consider the wider context and the limitations this imposes on what you can and cannot do. Along with that, you also need to think about ways in which you can (legally) navigate these constraints and expand the scope of your activity.

Shutting down a coal mine

Despite the detailed explanation given above, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the application of CATWOE without concrete examples. Let’s consider a real-life scenario and apply the CATWOE checklist to it to better understand how to use this powerful tool.

Imagine that you’re tasked by the government (as part of its climate change policies) to negotiate the closure of a coal mine with its owner.

You could simply show up and discuss this with the owner and get him to agree on a set of terms. However, you might end up failing to consider the perspective of the workers and find that they’ve gone on strike and are refusing to let you shut the coal mine down.

Here is how you can use the CATWOE checklist to make sure you consider all the angles before proceeding with a plan:

Clients

Mineral processing companies and power plants that run on this coal are the direct customers of this mine. They will definitely not appreciate you closing down the coal mine but this is where the government needs to step in and offer them incentives.

Actors

The mine workers who will ultimately do the physical work of decommissioning the mine are the actors and they will object to you taking their jobs away. You need to think about how they can be retrained and re-employed in some other sector.

Transformation

You are going to effectively shut down the coal mine’s operations so that it does not produce any more coal.

Worldview

In the larger context, this is one of many steps needed to tackle the encroaching problem of climate change. Your government has a long-term plan of switching over to renewables from fossil fuels and so this is just a part of that plan.

Owner

The owner of the coal mine may not welcome your plans unless you offer him a deal with enough financial incentives to convince him to close the mine and invest elsewhere.

Environment

The national policy is on your side, but you cannot close down the mine by force - those are the limitations you are working within. You must strike a deal with all concerned parties.

You can see how going through the CATWOE checklist highlights insights and points that you could have otherwise forgotten to consider, ending up in difficulties and roadblocks. After this analysis, you will be in a much better position to formulate a deal that satisfies all stakeholders.

It isn’t written in stone

At the end of the day, the CATWOE checklist is just a tool to facilitate your own thinking. You do not have to worry about checking off all the components and answering all the questions as long as you get a holistic view of the situation.

So make the most of it and keep bringing value to the world through your efforts!

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