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Iceberg Model

The Iceberg Model helps to visually represent the various levels of abstraction and issue, starting from concrete events and going to abstract models

The Iceberg Model helps to visually represent the various levels of abstraction to an issue or organization, starting from concrete events and going to abstract models. Click the image above to enlarge

The Iceberg Model tries to illustrate the various level of abstraction to a situation or organization, from the observable events to underlying patterns that generate these, to the supporting structure and ultimately the mental models used by an organization.1 The Iceberg Model helps individuals and organizations to expand their perception of a situation to see it within the context of the whole system and not limit themselves to looking at just a single activity or event. It is designed to help people to step back and identify the different patterns that, the event is part of, the possible structures that might be causing it to occur, and finally, the model that is creating those structures.2

An iceberg is used as an analogy to represent the underlying structures generating perceived events and issues, as it is known to have only 10 percent of its total mass above the water while 90 percent of it is underwater. The expression “tip of the iceberg” is used to connote that what one can see is only a small part of a whole situation, i.e. there is much more below the surface and what it looks like may be surprising. Just like with an iceberg, a large percentage of what is going on in our world is hidden from view and the Iceberg Model tries to make this explicit by depicting it as a series of layers that sit beneath the everyday phenomena observed.

The Iceberg Model argues that events and patterns, which are observable, are caused by systemic structures and mental models, which are often hidden.3 A fundamental systems thinking concept is that different people in the same structure will produce similar results, that is to say, structure causes 80 to 90% of all issues; not so much the people. Thus to understand behaviors, we must first identify and then understand the systemic structures and underlying mental models that cause them.4


The Iceberg Model typically identifies four basic levels to situations. Events, which represent the manifest components and actions observable to us. The patterns of behavior beneath this describe trends over time. System structure describes how the parts are interrelated to influence the patterns. Finally, the mental models that support everything else in the system through a set of beliefs, values, and assumptions shaping people’s perception.


The snapshot of current affairs that we see in the news daily are examples of events within the Iceberg model

The one minute snapshot of a current affair that we might see in the evening news is an example of an event within the Iceberg model

Above the water line are the events. Events are markers in time where multiple variables are observed.5 They are the “what’s happened,” or “what we saw.” They are discrete activities or facts about the state of things in the system, like noticing that the printer is broken, that there is a new president in Italy, or noticing a nice car that someone is driving. If we apply the Iceberg Model to global issues, we could say that at the tip, above the water, are events, or thing that we see or hear about happening in the world every day. The events that we hear about in the news represent the iceberg tip. Most of the world spends its time at the event level. It is how we perceive the world while being occupied with our daily activities.6

Patterns Of Behavior

Patterns are the changes in variables that occur over time.7 They are the trends that we perceive taking place over time. If we look just below the waterline, we often start to see patterns or the recurrence of events. This might be for example recurring oil spills or one’s computer periodically breaking down. Patterns are important to identify because they indicate that an event is not an isolated incident.8 Patterns answer the questions, what’s been happening? or what’s changing? When we make a statement like “it seems to be getting warmer in winter” or “the price of gas is going down” these are patterns that we are observing, a series of relationships between events. When we get to the pattern level, we can anticipate, plan, and forecast. It allows us to adapt to problems so we can react more effectively to them.

System Structure

The structure supports, creates and influences the patterns we see in the events. Structures can be understood as the “rules of the game.” They can be written or unwritten; they can be physical and visible or invisible. They are rules, norms, policies, guidelines, power structures, distribution of resources, or informal ways of work that have been tacitly or explicitly institutionalized. They answer the question, what might explain these patterns?9

It may not be easy to see the structure, but the patterns we can see tell us that the structure must be there. Structures are composed of cause-and-effect relationships. These are connections between patterns. For example, a farmer might say, “If I increase the number of cows, I will get more milk.” She is saying there is a connection between an increasing number of cows – a pattern – and an increasing amount of milk – another pattern.10 Or for example, the underlying structure of a problem such as recurring oil spills might be our dependence on fossil fuels. But if you look at the root cause of such spills, you can start to understand and address long-term, sustainable solutions such as developing alternative energy sources that do not rely on oil shipment.

Mental Models

The mental model used to perceive the world is ultimately what generates the structures, patterns and events

The mental model used to perceive the world is ultimately what generates the structures, patterns and events

Below the structures are the mental models. These define the thinking that creates the structures that then manifest themselves in the patterns of events. Mental models are people’s deeply held assumptions and beliefs that ultimately drive behavior.11 There is typically not just one pattern or structure or mental model at play; there can be many. Mental models are the attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations, values or culture that allow structures to continue functioning as they are. These are the beliefs that we often learn subconsciously from our society or family and are likely unaware of.12 Mental models are ultimately what keep the structure doing what it does. They are the thoughts and processes of reasoning that need to exist to cause the structure to be the way it is. These ideas exist in the minds of the structure’s stakeholders, the people who set up the structure or those that play a role in the way it operates. Mental models are typically difficult to identify in that they engender many assumptions that are never made explicit.13


An example of the iceberg model may be seen in one’s own health. Catching a cold would be an event, catching colds more often when we are tired is a pattern. The systemic structures or causes for getting tired might include lack of rest from excessive work, which might in term be a product of a mental model surrounding our identity as a hard working person. One tends to get caught up in the immediate event of suffering from a cold and typically forgets that it is part of a pattern of events that is caused by the underlying structures of our lifestyle and perception.

Leverage Points

The Iceberg Model not only illustrates the different dimensions to an issue but also offers insight into how to enact change most effectively within the system through what are called leverage points. A leverage point is a place within a system – a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem – where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.14 The lower we go in the iceberg, the more leverage we have for transforming the system. Changing structures and influencing mental models has a broader, more far-reaching effect than reacting in the moment and firefighting discrete events.15

Events – Reaction: If we only look at events, the best we can do is react. Something happens, and we fix it. This is typically our response the first time an event occurs. We do not shift our thinking in any way; we just act swiftly to fix the immediate problem using pre-existing solutions that have worked in the past. For some superficial events, this approach can work well, but will clearly fail if an issue is more systemic as we are merely dealing with the symptoms of the problem, not the underlying causes.16 The iceberg metaphor helps to illustrate that if we somehow altered the event on top without finding a solution to the cause, the buoyancy of the ice underneath would simply push up to recreate the tip again. As such only the most superficial of issues can be resolved at this level.17

Leverage points are points within an organization where small changes can have large effects, the farther down the iceberg the greater the leverage for change

Leverage points are points within an organization where small changes can have large effects; the farther down the iceberg model the greater the leverage for change

Pattern – Anticipation: When we start to notice a pattern of those events, we have more options. We can anticipate what is going to happen, and we can plan for it. When we start noticing patterns, we can begin to consider what is causing the same events to happen over and over again.18

Structure – Design: When we start to pay attention to the underlying structures, we begin to see where we can change what is happening. We are no longer at the mercy of the system. We can begin to identify the thinking and the mental models that are causing those structures to be the way they are.

Mental Model – Transform: Changing the model that an organization uses is the highest leverage point, it can lead to real transformation, with the possibility to totally restructure the system and overcome even the greatest of challenges. Think about the change in paradigm surrounding the environment and sustainability that has taken place over the past few decades as it has moved from a fringe concern to central stage.

As a more practical example think of how if one’s mental model is formed to see one’s children are inherently good people who study hard, then one would be more likely to create an incentive system for them centered on rewards within a conducive environment. However, if one’s model leads one to see the children as lazy, trying to shirk studying, then this mindset would lead to a more strict authoritarian structure that would, in turn, create certain patterns and events within the family dynamic.

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Iceberg Model," in Complexity Academy, August 2, 2016,

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