Reading for Leading #14: Using the systems thinking iceberg to troubleshoot problems

Using the systems thinking iceberg to troubleshoot problems

Reading for Leading is a weekly leadership tip shared every Monday morning as a pithy suggestion, question or reflection. You can find the whole series here.

At the recent Mindful Leadership Summit, Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline” led a session on systems thinking and systems leadership, including an exercise involving the iceberg model.

The iceberg model for guiding systemic thinking
Image credit:


The iceberg model allows us to explore a more complete picture of the different factors that may be at play in any given situation. Think of a problem that you’re currently facing. What you see at the top of the iceberg is the “event” where that problem manifests e.g. “Someone in my team has called in sick every week recently.”

But look below the event level to consider what might be contributing to causing the visible event. Firstly, what are the patterns/trends over time? e.g. “This increased absence rate started at the end of the summer.”

Next, identify what underlying structures may be influencing the trends e.g. “Over the summer senior management announced that funding for two major projects was up for review at the end of Q3.”

Finally, consider what mental models those involved may have about the situation e.g. “Team members think that funding is going to be cut for their projects and feel like they weren’t consulted and may be about to lose their jobs. As a result they have lost motivation.” and “Senior management doesn’t necessarily intend to cut funding but would like to shift to quarterly reviews of specific deliverables but don’t think it’s a priority to communicate this to staff.”

This analysis might suggest some actions to take to address the absence rate – maybe a consultation where staff can ask senior management questions and be reassured about the new process and where management can learn what information staff require to stay engaged.


Source of Inspiration: Talk by Peter Senge at the Mindful Leadership Summit 2017 and this post on the Northwest Earth Institute site.



4 thoughts on “Reading for Leading #14: Using the systems thinking iceberg to troubleshoot problems

  1. Pingback: 2017 on Social in silico – Social in silico

  2. I’d like to offer another real-life example from a colleague of mine, her client commented (at the event level): “People weren’t talking and the meetings weren’t functional. Our work is creative, about emotion and passion, but people were detached; I was flummoxed as to why people weren’t contributing.”

    The shift (at the mental model level) came from a systems game using the Iceberg model to expose hidden dynamics around the power structures underpinning the ideas process, rather than more tactical information like product goals.

    As you say, systems (specifically, organisational systems) are complex and people gain significant insight by stepping back and taking a holistic look at the system.

    More info on the case study:


    • Thanks for the example, Pete. One of the things I appreciated about Senge’s workshop was that not only did we work through the iceberg in pairs to each troubleshoot a problem, but the physical set up for doing this broke some of the norms of this kind of exchange. This helped to break us out of the ways we might normally approach this kind of brainstorming, enabling us to get different insights into our own situations.

      Practically, this meant that instead of sitting opposite one another and engaging in back and forth dialogue, we sat next to one another – ear-to-ear – but facing opposite directions. Then one person simply spoke their way down the iceberg, as described, while their partner listened. Then we swopped roles. It was a very generative way to get new perspective and seemed to work really well for those in the room.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: 6 months of Reading for Leading! Top posts so far… – Social in silico

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