5.2.1 The iceberg model


The iceberg is a metaphor associated with systems thinking (Senge 1990). Systems thinking approaches problems by asking how various elements within a system influence one another. The visible world around us is represented by the top of the iceberg, but this is only a “manifestation of patterns and structures that are below the water surface, hence cannot be observed directly” (Vandenbroeck 2015). What happens under water is what creates the icebergs behavior at its top. The iceberg represents a hierarchy of levels of understanding with observable events at the top and mental models at the bottom.


  • Observable events

The guiding question to find out about events is: “What just happened?”. The response is the events resulting from system behaviour or repeating patterns of cause and effect at the lower layer of the iceberg.

  • Patterns/trends

Below the events level, patterns and trends become visible, by asking “What trends have there been over time?”. Similar events have been taking place over time.

  • Underlying structures

At the structure level we could ask: “What is causing the pattern we are observing?” or “What are the relationships between the parts?”. Structures might consist of physical things (like buildings, roads, etc.), organisations (e.g. schools), policies (e.g. laws) or rituals (e.g. habits).

  • Mental models

Mental models are the images, assumptions, and stories which we carry in our minds of ourselves, other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world. Like a pane of glass framing and subtly distorting our vision, mental models determine what we see” (Senge et al. 1994). Also “Differences between mental models explain why two people can observe the same event and describe it differently” (Senge et al. 1994). In qualitative research we encounter mental models often in (mis)beliefs, expectations, values and attitudes.

We are unaware of our mental models or those of others, until we diliberately look for them. By means of qualitative research, and especially in combination with a systems thinking or grounded theory approach, we can bring mental models to the surface and explore them. Once we identified them we can try to re-form mental models or create new ones that serve us better in the world. Soft systems methodology (but also for example imagineering) can help us doing this. Mental models are the deepest layer of the iceberg, which is suggesting that they are difficult to reach and unresponsive to change. However, if mental models can be changed they offer the highest leverage for change (e.g. within an organisation or system) (Senge et al., 1994).


The lower level of the iceberg gives context and meaning to the higher level” (Vandenbroeck 2015). For every event you can work your way down the iceberg through the patterns, underlying systems and mental models. It can also be useful to move up and down between levels as you think more about the event. The iceberg should help to broaden your perspective. Each layer offers opportunities to “enter” the system. New leverage points, these are points at which to intervene in a system to systematically transform it, may become apparent.