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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What Does The Iceberg Model Even Mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

In a few days, I will have the honor of leading a passionate group of high schools students through a two-week change making seminar. One of the key lessons I hope to impart is the need for systems thinking when tackling society’s most complex challenges. To guide our discussion on systems thinking, we will turn to the iceberg model. What does the iceberg model even mean?

Think of an iceberg out in the ocean. It is true that only 10% of the iceberg exists above the water line, leaving so much more unseen. 

The same is true for a single problem or event. Delving beneath the surface of events helps us understand the larger system at work, identify root causes, and make smarter choices about where to intervene to affect change. Below is a breakdown of the iceberg model for systems thinking. 

1. Events: Observable situations, incidents, or behaviors, which often appear to be isolated. We most often respond to events in a reactionary way. 

2. Patterns: Influencing the event are trends of recurring or continuous events. With an awareness of the patterns, we can respond by anticipating the trends. 

3. Underlying Structures: Patterns are caused by structural forces, be they policies, distribution of resources, or physical designs. Knowing the patterns and what causes them, we can intervene by designing new structures. 

4. Mental Models: The conscious or unconscious thoughts and deeply held assumptions that drive decision making and keep the structures in place. What is it about our thinking that creates the system and supports its persistence? Intervening in our mental models means transforming our awareness, as well as the way we think and learn. 

5. Cultural and Institutional Values: This one is usually left off of typical systems thinking iceberg models, but our friends at the Interaction Institute for Social Change included it to represent the core beliefs and values embedded in our worldview. These values shape and constrain our mental models, but are seldom brought to the surface to be seen, named, or challenged. 

With a deeper understanding of an event, our leverage to intervene and to make real systemic change increases.