How to use the “iceberg” to understand complex systems

Posted on Updated on

icebergmodOne of the most useful tools available to a systems thinker is called “the iceberg“.  The iceberg metaphor represents the problems we face in the world (much like an iceberg is a problem for ships).  The visible world or the symptoms of a problem are easy to see.  But the bulk of the iceberg representing the underlying cause(s) of the problem is below the water line.  We need to learn to see below the water line.

Get it?

Okay…. so that was easy.  Now we dig deeper into the iceberg model and use it to try to

understand our problems at a deeper level than usual (below the water line).   Here is the standard iceberg model.



Okay…. now to use the tool we need to try to understand the relationships among the events, patterns, structure and mental models. 

stopWe begin with events….  something simple like stopping your car at a red stop light.  That’s a single event, right?

Most individual events are part of larger patterns of behavior.  For example, stopping at a red light is part of a pattern of driving your car.  This might include stopping at red lights, driving on the right side of the road, using your signals when you turn, obeying the speed limit etc.  These are patterns that result in a particular event.

Patterns however don’t develop without underlying systemic structures that support the pattern.   In our example, these might be:

  • physical things – the traffic light
  • organizations – such as the police
  • policies – like the traffic laws
  • rituals – like “obeying the law”

If you have ever driven a car or riden a motorcycle in some countries in Southeast Asia, you would recognize the importance of these structures!

If we try to explain a single event such as  why people stop at a red light, we need to see it as part of a larger pattern of behavior which is encouraged by particular structures.  Structures “institutionalize” specific behavior.  They are relatively permanent and have a big influence on our behavior.

But the structures themselves don’t appear out of nowhere…. in fact, they emerge from mental models.

To change behavior, we need to change how we think about the world! 


A printable version of this blog (without the video) may be found here.



Please post your comments here...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s