Systems Thinking: The Iceberg Model

2-40 people

Systems thinking is an approach to problem-solving that considers the interdependence of various elements within a system, whether it's an ecosystem, an organization, or a supply chain. Instead of addressing individual issues as they arise, a systems thinker examines the relationships between different activities within the system, identifies patterns over time, and seeks out underlying causes.

Workshop steps


Introduction The iceberg model is a useful systems thinking approach for comprehending both global and local issues. Like an iceberg, with only 10% visible above water and 90% hidden beneath, global and local issues can be similarly analyzed. LEVELS OF THINKING 1. The Event Level We usually perceive the world at the event level, such as catching a cold one morning. Although some problems can be resolved with minor adjustments, the iceberg model encourages us to not assume that every issue can be fixed by merely addressing the symptom or tweaking the event level. 2. The Pattern Level Looking just below the event level, we can often spot patterns. For example, we might notice that we catch colds more frequently when we don't get enough rest. Recognizing patterns helps us predict and prevent events. 3. The Structure Level Beneath the pattern level is the structure level, which answers the question, "What is causing the pattern we observe?" Structures can include: - Physical things: vending machines, roads, traffic lights, or terrain. - Organizations: corporations, governments, and schools. - Policies: laws, regulations, and tax structures. - Ritual: ingrained habitual behaviors that are not consciously recognized. For instance, increased work stress, poor eating habits, or limited access to healthy food sources could be structures contributing to catching a cold. 4. The Mental Model Level Mental models consist of attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations, and values that enable structures to function as they do. Often learned subconsciously from society or family, mental models might include beliefs such as the importance of career, the high cost of healthy food, or the notion that rest is for the unmotivated. These mental models could play a role in us catching a cold.


COMBINING THE LEVELS Check out the attached diagram to see the Iceberg Model in action for a case of catching a cold. GIVE IT A SHOT! Choose a recent event that you find urgent, important, or intriguing. Some examples could be a recent weather event, the pandemic, a controversial court decision or a high-profile court case; a local policy change or contentious issue; recent military action between nations; or an issue you've personally experienced lately. Write the event (what is observable about the event) at the top of the iceberg (you might draw an iceberg/triangle) and work your way down through the patterns, underlying systems, and mental models, adding as many as you can think of. Feel free to move up and down between levels as you think more about the event.


AFTER TESTING THE ICEBERG MODEL, CONTEMPLATE THESE QUESTIONS 1. Did the iceberg model expand your viewpoint? If yes, how can this fresh outlook be beneficial? 2. Reflect on the idea of entry or "leverage" points - the spots where intervening in a system could result in significant changes. 3. Did the activity reveal any new entry points that motivate you to take action? 4. Which frustrating issues might be worth examining using the Iceberg Model? 5. Any other thoughts? SIMPLE ACTION STEPS 1. Determine if there's an action to be taken. Utilize the Who/What/When Matrix to link individuals with specific tasks and a deadline for completion.

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Anna Lundqvist
UX Designer and AI Ethics Strategist guiding innovative product development and educational workshops
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Eddy Salzmann
Design lead and team culture enthusiast driving products and design processes
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Ola Möller
Founder of MethodKit who has a passion for organisations and seeing the big picture
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