As the use of realist approaches gains momentum, there is a growing interest in how systems approaches can complement realist thinking. In this paper, we discuss how the epistemology of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is compatible with realist approaches. Both SSM and realist approaches emphasise 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 SSM, and report on two novel case studies. Drawing on our own experiences, we make the case that, used in conjunction with a realist approach, SSM can provide a useful tool to a) map programme complexity, 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 SSM as a novel companion to realist approaches and detail the first case studies of its use.