As the use of realist approaches gains momentum, there is a growing interest in how systems approaches can complement realist thinking. In this article, we discuss how the epistemology of Soft Systems Methodology is compatible with realist approaches. Both Soft Systems Methodology and realist approaches emphasize the necessity to engage stakeholders; through models, the
description of contingencies and exploring the intricacies of how complex programmes really work. We outline the key elements of realist approaches and Soft Systems Methodology, and report on two novel case studies. Drawing on our own experiences, we make the case that, used in conjunction with a realist approach, Soft Systems Methodology can provide a useful tool to a) map programme complexity, and b) develop and refine stakeholders programme theories, thus increasing the transparency, reliability, validity and accuracy of the theory building and refining process in realist approaches. We highlight Soft Systems Methodology as a novel companion to realist approaches and detail the first case studies of its use.