The Iceberg Model

Nora Guerrera
4 min readFeb 6, 2024

A Tool for Systemic Thinking

This post is for you if:

  • You have challenges, and you want to solve them. Not the symptoms of the challenges but the real underlying cause.
  • Things are going well for you and your organization, and you want to understand why so you can maintain and support it. (And not mess it up.)
  • You have a problem you haven’t been able to solve. You’ve tried a number of things, but none have worked. You need to look deeper and discover the real cause.

The Iceberg Model

(reference: https://ecochallenge.org/iceberg-model/)

(reference: https://ecochallenge.org/iceberg-model/)

  • The tip of the iceberg represents the visible things. These may be events that occurred, things you’re seeing, or things you’re hearing. It’s common to focus on these things first. They’re right in front of us, and they’re easy to react or respond to.
  • Just below the surface are the patterns and trends. What are the things that people or teams continually do? How do they respond to requests? Work? Challenges? Is it predictable, and could it be known? Is it what we want to see, or is it not?
  • Underlying structures are below patterns and trends. The structure is the foundation. It establishes the causes of the patterns and trends. They form the foundation for the events or the things that we see.
  • At the bottom are the mental models- the beliefs and values of the individuals within the system. These beliefs and values are what cause the system to work the way it does. For example, if someone believes their peers don’t want them to be able to do a good job, no amount of structure, subsequent communication, or expectation is going to change the outcome.

Most people focus most of their time on the tip of the iceberg, and it’s a mistake.

If you’re curious about how to understand your own iceberg, the following sequence of questions and steps can be helpful:

  1. Start with what you’re seeing at the tip of the iceberg, then ask yourself, what might be causing it?
  2. Look at the layer below. You’re seeking patterns or trends that might be indicative of a larger issue. Thinking of a layer as a step back or a step before can be helpful.
  3. Consider the patterns and trends you see. What might be causing them to happen? You’re seeking underlying structures.
  4. Then, ask, why is the structure this way? What mental models are causing us/our teams/individuals to behave in this way?

Push yourself to think beyond immediate knee-jerk answers or reactions to go deeper and challenge yourself to see what’s under the surface.

Once you’ve done that, you can dive into how to change them. Things like how might I impact it? What’s the right level of the iceberg in which to make this change or reinforce this behavior? And a lot more.

An Example

A team is underperforming. They appear to be working hard, but their work product is poor. The natural inclination is to try and fix the work product. (The tip of the iceberg) But why are they underperforming? Are they always underperforming, or is it only at certain times or conditions? (The pattern or trend) But perhaps a team often underperforms because they aren’t given enough information. (The structure) When they’re not given enough information, they do the best they can, but ultimately, they aren’t able to be successful in the work we see at the tip of the iceberg. As time has gone on, the patterns and structure have created mental models that are challenging. Only when you start with these and work your way up will you be able to fix the problem.

Key Takeaway:

The only way to change the things we see at the tip of the iceberg is to change the underlying structures that cause them to be this way.

Similarly, the only way to reinforce great things happening at the tip of the iceberg is to understand what’s allowing and enabling them under the surface.

Reflect for a moment: What mental models and underlying structures are creating positive and negative activity and behavior in your organization? What might be causing this behavior, and how might you impact it?

Share your experiences and ideas in the comments below.

New ideas and new insights are vital to the creative process.

Here are things of interest to maintain your idea flow this week:

Everything You Need to Know About Product Messaging from Diane Wiredu on The Product Experience Podcast.

Takeaways:

  • Product Messaging Fit is just as important as Product Market Fit
  • Create a KPM (Key Product Message)
  • Don’t get too focused on the product and talking about the product. Remember your users and talk about the value of your product or service to them. As she says, “Here’s what our product can do is not the same as here’s what you can do with our product.”
  • Remove the fluff from your messaging, and clearly explain what you do.

Check out more:

This is a newsletter from Nora Guerrera & Northome Group. Northome Group creates conversations and platforms for connection, conversation, and growth around design thinking and design strategies.

Learn more at www.northomegroup.com or contact us at hello@northomegroup.com.

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Nora Guerrera

Strategist, Leader, Coach, Teacher. I help clients explore, create and use digital to bring game-changing experiences to their businesses and their customers.