How The Iceberg Model of Systems Thinking Can Help You Solve Problems?

How should we solve a problem? Generally, what we most commonly do, is to react based on what’s visible. For example, if we eat too much food, and we do not exercise, we will gain weight. The solution to this problem, looking solely at what happened, is eating less and exercising more. But that’s a wrong approach. In the world of systems thinking, we’ll ask this: “Why am I overeating and not exercising? What’s the real reason?” Figuring out what actually created the problem in the first place, and acting based on this realization, is what makes the iceberg model of systems thinking so damn efficient.

There are many more ways to solve a problem, of course. But what makes the iceberg model so graceful is the relentless desire to understand what’s behind the curtain. What’s the real reason something happened. And what you can do about it to make a change.

If you’re new to this concept – systems thinking that is – let’s get you up to speed.

There are systems everywhere. And everything is connected. Not just our phones in the monstrously big network we call the Internet. But our actions. Nature. Our relationships with other people. A simple action that we consider insignificant can cause huge complications along the way. Or, as is often cited, “a butterfly flapping its wings can cause hurricanes.”1

The point of this metaphor is to portray how something small can cause a huge change.

And this is true for everyone. Something you do can cause good, or bad things, in other areas simply because of the way things are connected.

That’s the essence of systems thinking. Everything is linked in one giant system. For instance, if you don’t treat your children well, they will grow up careless of others and afraid of exploring different ideas and concepts but they won’t understand why that is. Eventually, they might even transfer the initial “education” received by you to their own successors.

Or, to give you another example, if you’re unable to figure out what are the weak spots in your organization, you’ll continue to invest in the wrong things which will produce weak outcomes and lose you money.

By understanding and applying the concept I’m about to present, you’ll stop treating individual events. Stop looking solely at the cause. Instead, you’ll start to dig deeper. Ask questions that will help you unravel the relationships between elements, how they work (or don’t work) together, spot patterns, and finally figure out the root cause of the problems you’re facing.

What Is The Iceberg Model of Systems Thinking?

The iceberg model of systems thinking is a way of understanding the origin of a problem. Not simply reacting base on an event, on what’s visible, but going beneath what’s apparent and unraveling the motivations that caused the problem to exist in the first place. By applying a four-step model, you reach the core issue and find a better fix.

The iceberg is the perfect metaphor for the problems we’re experiencing daily because what’s visible, is often deceiving. You see a pile of ice floating above the water and you think, “That’s not too big, we can simply go past it.” But as we all know, thanks to movies like Titanic, the ice beneath the water will tear your ship which will lead to a dramatic chase around the deck, boats, violinists playing music around screaming people, diamonds, and eventually the most infamous ship disaster in history, but let’s not digress.

When you think about it, you can understand why icebergs are “bigger” beneath the water. Most of the mass of an iceberg lies below the surface of the water because the conditions inside the water prevent the ice from melting. While at the top, since the atmosphere is warmer, the ice melts. Therefore, more ice beneath and less at the top.2

Similarly, this is what happens in real life.

Since we want to present our best selves in front of the public, we’ll hide certain things from our friends and family members. We’ll say that we eat too much because the meal was delicious. Inside, though, we might feel depressed and discouraged and binge-eat because this makes us feel safe. Or in other words, the “environment” beneath our personality when not properly understood is setting the conditions for disastrous events.

How Does The Iceberg Model Help System Thinking?

The core concept of systems thinking is to help you see under the hood of structures, groups, organizations, and spot what are the real incentives.

The iceberg model helps you do just that. It provides an easy-to-follow framework that helps you find the motivations. What actually caused the behavior to appear. What chain of thoughts led to a problem. Once this is done, you’re not reacting to the symptoms.

You focus on curing the main problem. Thanks to this, you uncover the root cause of the problems you encounter because you patiently deconstruct the situation until you’ve reached the bottom.

And finally, the most important part, you will learn how to stop “fires” in the future well before they occur because you’ve figured out what caused them initially. In short, it’s a proactive approach to problem-solving.

Thankfully, you don’t need to understand a whole lot about systems thinking to get this concept and apply it to your life. The shared illustrations and steps will help you become a master problem identifier and start to see the whole picture, not simply part of an idea or problem.

What Are The Four Levels Of The Iceberg Model?

The four levels of the iceberg model are the following: event, pattern, structure, and mental models. Each step digs a bit deeper and helps you shift your perspective so you can find the systems, the worldviews, that lead to the event in the first place.

Let’s see them one by one:

the four levels of the iceberg model
If we treat the symptom, we will never cure the disease. We need to understand what is causing the event to happen and apply fixes there.

1. The Event Level

This is what’s visible. What actually happened. And in most situations, the only thing visible if we don’t do the hard work to understand what caused a particular problem. If we again use the example from above, the event is a person overeating.

2. The Pattern Level

When we look closely, we can see repetitions. Overeating is not a single event, we can see how this happens continuously. Or in other words, this is a trend.

3. The Structure Level

We go a step further down the iceberg and we start to ask questions like: “What is causing the pattern to exist?” Usually, this is not a straight answer. There are different things causing the behavior.

  • Physical: Easy access to bad food. For example, your refrigerator is full of sweets. Or, there aren’t health stores around your neighborhood.
  • Environment: Here we can have different things: Stressful work; Your home is not prepared for exercises; Your closest friends and family members love to have a rich dinner.
  • Rituals: Our deeply integrated habits. For instance, every time you’re bored, you eat. Or you tend to cook (or buy) unhealthy food.

4. The Mental Model Level

Lastly, there are the mental models. The beliefs, the principles, the values that motivate the behavior. This is the core reason something tends to happen.

Or in relation to the example we are discussing, a person is probably overeating because he lived in a stressful environment when he was young and now, every time there is a similarly stressful situation, the person turns to food. In this case, food is considered a friend. An emotional partner that “understands” and calms.

Usually, these concepts are deeply integrated into our consciousness. So deep, that we don’t know that they exist. Unless we deliberately try to bring them to light, we’ll never overcome our reckless behavior.

One more important point here: Our beliefs are the systems that fuel our actions. The problem is that they are deeply merged into our personalities – who we believe we are. That’s why it’s so hard to make a lasting change – eradicate the bad behavior that leads to problems. We don’t only have to work on our habits, but we also need to work on our perceived identities. In simple language, to change our inner beliefs which always leads to a personality change.

How Can We Use The Iceberg Model to Our Advantage?

OK, once we know what the iceberg model of systems thinking is. Quite naturally, we’ll ask ourselves this: “How can I use this method to approach a problem. And, most importantly, apply a permanent fix?”

Tackling the event level – level 1 – is not the optimal solution. We need to address our deeply embedded beliefs to create a lasting change. Or in other words, start to fix things from the bottom up. The following framework will aid you:

How do you use the iceberg model to solve problems
When you spot a problem, figure out what are your mental models that led to the behavior. Then, adopt better beliefs.

Transform the Mental Models

The first step is to, as mentioned above, understand why we do what we do. If we are overeating, this might be a habit we picked when we were young. For example, we had a difficult childhood and unsupportive parents.

In the book The Body Keeps the Score, the author explains that if a person is not receiving the needed support from his parents, he’s likely to find comfort in things like alcohol, binge-eating, drugs.

Over time, you start to associate stressful events with something that happened to you in the past and you turn to your preferred poison – food in our example.

Transforming this chain of thought might be something like this: First, acknowledging that this is a stressful situation. Then, explain to yourself that it’s totally OK to feel this way but the way you feel now has nothing to do with what happened to you in the past. Third, do the mental work so you can remove the belief that stress should involve eating.

Design A Better Structure

The things reinforcing a behavior that leads to a problematic event can be different and we need to address all of them.

  • Physical: Instead of filling the refrigerator with fast food, we can buy healthy snacks.
  • Environment: If the surrounding environment is unbearable – stressful work, a bad relationship – we need to talk with the person (boss, spouse) and find ways to correct things. If the latter is not possible, exiting the relationship is probably the best thing to do.
  • Rituals: Replace the bad habits with good habits. If you eat every time you’re feeling bored, replace this with something else.

Anticipate Patterns

Once you know what might lead to a situation where there will be a problem, you can avoid doing this thing. However, in the long term, it’s not a good idea to avoid your problems. It’s best to face them. This means that you need to be prepared. If you know what type of situation triggers an emotional outburst in your spouse that leads to a fight that later leads to you eating. Then, it’s probably a good idea to sit and talk it out in a respectful and calm way.

React To Events

Once we know what type of events trigger an inner desire to do things that are not beneficial, we can better react to the actual event. The thing that is causing problems.

As explained above, instead of eating when we’re feeling a certain way, we can exercise or simply grab a notebook and write down our thoughts. The latter will give you more time to react. It will increase the gap between thought and action. Plainly, you invite reason – System 2 as explained by Daniel Kahneman – not react emotionally. Therefore, you will respond better to a problem.

Iceberg Model Systems Thinking Examples

Hopefully, you don’t have an eating disorder and the above example doesn’t directly apply to you. I’m positive that even if it does, the provided steps will give you ways to think more strategically and better handle upsetting events.

Still, I wanted to add two extra examples that I believe a lot of people will find helpful:

Example 1:

The situation:

  • The Event: People are quitting their jobs.
  • The Pattern: These days a lot of people are quitting their jobs.3
  • The Structure: On an individual level: People want more flexible hours; Want to spend more time with their kids, but the office culture is not allowing this to happen. On organizational level: The whole structure is build around going to the office; Organizations are not favoring the work-from-home culture because they think employees are procrastinating; There is already a physical office and it’s hard for the owners to just leave it or see it empty for most of the time; The common conception is that you need to be present in the office to do your job; The ritual of “going to work” is deeply embedded in our society.
  • The mental models: The mental models of the workers: People are quitting their jobs because they place their families first; They want their center of gravity to be their lives and what they find valuable, not things revolving solely around their job; They want a better work/life balance; They don’t think that you should work your ass off; They think that people should use their time to travel, explore, have an equal amount of fun. On the other hand, the beliefs that circulate in the heads of employers can be: The working environment needs physical presence to create a culture; Corporations are not fully trusting their staff that they’ll do the job correctly if they are not in the office; They want more control over the employees.

The solution:

  • Transform the mental models: Organizations can become more flexible and understand people’s real needs. Realize that the world is changing and that they must accept the change, not stay in the old ways of doing things.
  • Design a better structure: Focus on creating an environment where remote work, or at least the hybrid approach, is working and everyone feels equally rewarded. Review all processes and make them more flexible.
  • Patterns: Anticipate what might happen. Have conversations with your staff regularly. This will help you prevent people from burning out or feeling unmotivated.
  • Event: When someone wants to quit, you can have a conversation with him and understand his reasons. If his decision is final, you can at least make corrections to your system that will benefit the people who still work for you.

Example 2:

The situation:

  • The Event: Feeling unmotivated.
  • The Patterns: Feeling unmotivated for the past couple of months because of the work you do. You’re a freelance writer working from home, creating articles for mediocre companies across the globe.
  • The Structure: Working alone from your home. No one to talk to. You’re regularly reading stories of successful writers who do meaningful work which makes you feel even more discouraged.
  • Mental Models: You’ve developed high-level writing skills but you want to use them for something bigger. Deep down, you want to create meaningful scripts that will be shared by others not because the advertising budget is high, but because what you’re creating is making people think deep. Also, you think that you don’t have what it takes to be your own boss.

The solution:

  • Transform mental models: Realizing that working for someone else while creating meaningful content is fully possible. The two can co-exist. Instead of feeling incapable of starting your own thing, recognize that you’re already running your own business. Freelancing is not something everyone can do. It requires strict discipline.
  • Design a better structure: Go out more. Work from co-working spaces. Join an online community of writers that support each other. Create time in your life where you can work on your own business – a writing studio.
  • Patterns: Figure out what type of work make you feel depressed and avoid such work. And, figure out what type of work brings you joy and focus more on this.
  • Event: Create a new daily system where you have the time to work on your own business while working for others too.

Why Is The Iceberg Model Important?

Lastly, I wanted to briefly explain why this thinking concept is so important.

If we operate based only on what we see in front of us – the event level – we are only in a position to react. We can skip a meal and think that we’re doing a change. Watch a motivational video to finish the boring project. But the underlying desire to eat or avoid doing your job will still be there, lurking. Patiently waiting for another moment to appear and cause distress.

You can imagine everything below the event as an independent system. The transformation lies in the thinking that created the structure, that drove the pattern, that caused the event.

how the iceberg model relates to systems thinking
Your mental models are creating the structure. Your structure is causing the events and the patterns to exist. Change the belief, and you will change the patterns.

Once you can see all of these as different systems, you will shift your perspective – do the work to remove the intervenor. Dig deeper to understand what’s really causing the problem. And all of this will help you become much better at solving problems.

Some Closing Thoughts

Before you go, think about this: “What problems that are troubling my mind are worth analyzing with the iceberg model?”

Don’t just skim the content without doing the work. Put the framework into practice. Even if you think you have the situation under control, the questions and the process of thinking about the different scenarios will make you more prepared for possible complications.

When we teach ourselves to look beyond what’s visible, we’ll learn to identify the root cause of the problems we face – the systems that drive the behavior. Therefore, become better problem solvers and even more importantly, create solutions based on our core desires or work towards adopting encouraging mental models.4

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing ‘patterns of change’ rather than ‘static snapshots.” Peter Senge


Footnotes:

  1. This is most commonly used to explain the so-called butterfly effect. In short, a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.
  2. Obviously, it’s a bit more complicated than that but I believe you get my point.
  3. This is actually something I covered in one of my previous posts about working for a startup or creating one. The movement is called The Great Resignation.
  4. The following articles helped me create this piece of information: Connecting Systems Thinking and Action by Ed Cunliff; Iceberg Model Untools by Adam Amran; A Systems Thinking Model:
    The Iceberg
    by Ecochallenge.
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