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The Iceberg and Systems Thinking

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The Iceberg and Systems Thinking

Scott Miker

Ninety percent of an iceberg is under water.  That means that the visible, above-water section of the iceberg is really only 10%.  But if we never explore below the water, we would never even realize that most of the iceberg is not seen from the surface. 

Systems thinking is the mental equivalent to the 90% of the iceberg that is hidden.  It goes deeper than the linear thinking which only accounts for the visible 10%.

Everything around us is made up of systems.  Looking at life systematically we can start to see deeper and clearer than if we ignore the underlying systems and simply focus on the end result.

But most people never even explore beyond the top 10%.  They miss most of the understanding and instead draw incomplete conclusions.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can start to expand our understanding by looking at the full picture, systems and all. 

Peter Senge is a renowned systems thinker.  He has written several books that address systems in business and sustainability and has a thorough understanding of the importance of systems. 

In his book, The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, Senge uses the iceberg to talk about systems. 

Senge calls the top of the iceberg “Events.”  “The first level of the iceberg can be summed up in the questions ‘What just happened?’ Think of it as the ‘Six O’Clock News’ version of reality.”

This is where most people remain.  They look at events or outcomes and draw conclusions based on this limited view of the world.  They may take a step further and look at cause and effect, before and after, good and bad, but this is still just a linear view and doesn’t encompass the complete system involved. 

Below that top of the iceberg (events) is really where the understanding comes in.  According to Senge this includes Patterns/Trends, Systemic Structures or Forces, and Mental Models. 

Seeing a pattern often starts to grow one’s understanding.  We can start to see that the “Six O’Clock News” version of reality glosses over the patterns.  We get caught up in the fact that the stock market went up or down and by how much.  But we don’t view it in the true cyclical fashion that it is.  Therefore, people get caught up (usually emotionally) in the up or down and it diminishes their ability to see the full pattern and the ebbs and flows over time. 

Looking further at the Systemic Structures, we can start to see the elements that contribute to these patterns.  This gives us even more understanding.  We can start to see the ebbs and flows but also understand the general forces that contribute to those ebbs and flows. 

The deepest part of the system thinking iceberg are the mental models.  These are the various ways of thinking that allows the situation to persist and allows the systemic structures to remain.  For the stock market this is often times related to the greed and fear that people feel around investing.  When greed is the driving force we tend to overvalue stocks creating a bubble.  When fear is the driving force we tend to undervalue stocks.  Experienced investors usually see this and make sure that they are buying during times of fear and selling during times of greed. 

The stock market is just one simple example of a complex system that is like an iceberg.  While I drastically simplified things, the point remains that while many people only focus on the events and the top 10% of the iceberg, the reality is that there is much more below the surface and using systems thinking we can start to unlock a greater understanding of our world.  We can finally gain an understanding of the 90% that is missed.