An iceberg is an interesting thing. Typically, only one-tenth of its volume is above water, so most of it cannot be seen. In addition, the shape of the underwater portion can be difficult to judge by looking at the portion above the surface. These two observations are the background for the everyday expression “tip of the iceberg.” Generally, it is used to mean that what you can see is only a small part of the whole situation. In other words, there is much more below the surface and what it looks like may surprise you.
Just like an iceberg, a lot of what is going on in our world is hidden from view. In order to effectively observe and understand the world we need to “surface” these deeper levels of understanding. Doing this can help us make sense of our world and formulate more effective responses to new situations.
Most of us see the world as a series of “events” — things that happen. Most of these events are routine, like eating breakfast. Some pose a threat to our well-being, like that guy who almost hit you on your way to work this morning. Many that we notice present themselves as “problems” we must solve, like the leaky faucet in the kitchen.
Events are markers in time where multiple variables are observed. For example, the temperature at JFK airport in New York at 11:00 am on January 3, 2010 was 20 degrees F. Or my car had an oil change at Tri-State Motors in Putnam, Connecticut on March 20, 2009 at a cost of $18.95 with the work being done by a mechanic named Steve.
Most of the world spends its time at the event level. It is how we perceive the world while going about our daily business. When we view problems at this level our solutions tend to be reactive.
Patterns are the changes in variables that occur over time. Since these variables are frequently observed as parts of events, to see these patterns we start by asking ourselves the question, “Which events seem to go together?” — that is, we speculate that certain events are in some way related. Then, using the accumulated memories of the events, we view them as a series in order to see a pattern. More specifically, we look at the variables that are involved in the events and examine how they change (or stay the same) over time.
While the world does not spend as much time at the pattern level as it does at the event level, it does “take the escalator” to this level quite often. We hear it when people say, “Wow, your kids have grown,” “It takes me longer to get to work,” “The leak is getting worse,” or “I don’t go to Starbucks anymore.” On the other hand, there are many patterns that are never recognized. For this reason, pattern level is half-above and half-below the water line in the iceberg diagram.
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.
The next level down is the structure. Structure answers to the question, “What is causing the pattern we are observing?” Just as invisible ice below the water supports the visible tip of the iceberg, the structure supports and creates the patterns we see in the events. 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 chickens, I will get more eggs.” He is saying there is a connection between an increasing number of chickens (a pattern) and an increasing number of eggs (another pattern).
While most of the world thinks in terms of this kind of linear cause and effect, the patterns we observe can best be explained by circular cause-and-effect relationships called “feedback loops.” For example, that same farmer might observe, “If I get more eggs I can hatch some and get more chickens, which eventually will lay more eggs which will produce more chickens.”
Relationships are harder to see than things. As a result, the world seldom digs down to this level of thinking. That is unfortunate because there are some rewards for getting to this level. In particular, at this level it is easier to see more proactive solutions to problems.
Mental models are what keep the structure doing what it does. They are the thoughts and reasoning that must exist (or must have existed) that cause the structure to be the way it is. These thoughts 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.
Everything that makes up a mental model is difficult to identify. Some of its elements are attitudes, beliefs, morals, ethics, expectations, values, and experiences. For this reason, the Mental Model level is seldom explored. Mental models are well below the water line in our iceberg diagram.
The “escalator” down to this level seems to be obvious. First, identify the stakeholders who set up the structure and determine what they were thinking, perceiving, believing, or assuming that made the structure the way it is. Then, identify the stakeholders who currently operate and influence the system and determine what they think, perceive, believe, value, or assume that keeps it operating the way it does.
While this sounds simple, getting to this level can take a lot of work and commitment. The reasons for this are:
The Mental Model level is a powerful level at which to think and work. Solutions to problems that are created at this level are hard to implement, but when successful can be generative in their impact –– they can bring something into being that did not exist before.
The last or lowest level is the Container Level. A container is the framework of thought that shapes and constrains our mental models. At its foundation are a set of beliefs, goals, and values that are so “core” to the individual or society in question that they are seldom brought to the surface or challenged. These values and beliefs are instilled in us by traditions, teachings, training, images, and stories. They are promoted and defended by our scientific, social, religious, economic, educational, or governmental institutions.
Most of the Western world stores its mental models in similar containers. We share a common set of assumptions about the nature of reality, our role in it, how we experience it, how it should be explored, how we should think, how we should act, etc. This is the basic framework that allows us to make sense of the world. It is how we believe the universe works. In the true sense of the word this is a “worldview.” It allows us to recognize patterns and ignore unimportant information. Without it we would be unable to survive.
To identify a worldview we need to identify what is limiting or shaping our thinking, reasoning, and actions. One way to approach this task is to consider all the things these institutions have taught you that are limiting your thinking on a particular subject. This will be difficult. Many limits will be hard to detect. At first you will only get fleeting glimpses of some of them. After a while they will become more visible. You will probably not want to change them. However, just being aware of what they are and how they limit what you think will be helpful.
One thing that helps you see your container is to study other containers. Two ways come to mind.
As you pursue the concept of escalated thinking you will catch glimpses of the container that shapes your mental models. This is something most people never see. You will also learn how to step inside another container or two — alternative worldviews. None of these are “right” or “wrong,” although some may be more or less appropriate when looking at a particular issue or living in a particular age.
Solutions to problems that are successfully addressed at this level are “explosive.” They change and disrupt everything. Problems aren’t really “solved” at this level, they are “dissolved.“ The changes made at this level change what we are concerned about. Old “problems” are no longer important or have obvious solutions.
This diagram is useful because it helps us “take the escalator” from one level of thinking to another. Because it follows a nice, orderly, rational progression to get from level to level, most people are comfortable using it. It fits well into the container of Western thought. This makes it convenient doorway into the worldview of systems thinking.
When you are successful in using the diagram, you will be able to see your problem or situation at five different levels and see it at all five levels simultaneously. When you compare this five-tier perspective on your situation with the singular perspective with which you started, you will realize that using the diagram has given you a different worldview — a new container — which is the deepest level.
As you descend through the levels some patterns emerge:
Solutions to problems generated at each lower level tend to be:
References using the Systems Thinking Iceberg: