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The Iceberg Model

What is the Iceberg Model?

Social sector organisations can often feel like they’re just mopping up messes and/or plugging endless leaks without ever managing to fix the underlying fault in the plumbing system. There is good reason to attend to the leaks: leaks are urgent, and not doing so might cause flooding or even drowning. But eventually the question needs to be asked: what’s wrong with this system that it keeps leaking?

Figuring that out whilst water is gushing forth and people are at risk of drowning is extremely challenging. So it is with our social systems.

In social systems, many organisations are focused on helping those in urgent need. But, without understanding and addressing the deeper structural, systemic patterns that keep producing these needs, that work will never end.

Unfortunately, the deeper we go into those patterns and structures, the harder it is to see the connection to (or impact on) the day-to-day events. Models such as this are designed to help us understand and work with that increased complexity.

The Iceberg Model is a simple, accessible systems thinking tool which uses the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate how the surface-level events we react to are underpinned by less visible patterns, structures, and beliefs. (The original Iceberg Model was developed by anthropologist Edward Hall in 1976 but applied to culture in organisations. It was then adapted and evolved by systems and management theorists.) These less visible structures cause visible events to keep repeating.

How it works

The layers of the Iceberg Model are:

  • Events: Day to day events and situations. These tend to generate a reactive, ‘after the event’ response to ameliorate their effects.
    For example, the event may be someone becoming homeless, and the intervention may be to provide food or temporary shelter.
  • Patterns: Trends or patterns of related events and situations. Continuing with the above example, the ‘patterns’ here would be increasing rates of homelessness. Intervention at this level might be a larger scale programme such as increasing available accommodation for people experiencing homelessness.
  • Structures: The ways that a system works which keep producing the trends or patterns, such as policies, processes, and practices. For the homelessness example, these may be policies that have reduced social housing or tenant security and rights. Interventions at this level would include policy change.
  • Mental models: The shared beliefs, mindsets, attitudes, and values that created the system and how it operates. Some mental models relating to homelessness might include, for example, the beliefs that sleeping rough is a “lifestyle choice”. Interventions here seek to change attitudes and societal behaviours.

Why is it useful?

The Iceberg Model is a simple tool to help you start to analyse your system. Some of its benefits and uses include:

  • Accessibility: The iceberg is an easily understood metaphor that can provide a way in to thinking about the underlying factors in your system. Its visual nature offers the opportunity to map these factors on a flip chart or digital canvas.
  • Surfacing: We recommend using the Iceberg Model within a group exercise, bringing different perspectives on the system together to surface some of those underlying patterns and structures. In doing so, you can increase shared visibility of what may not be visible to all.
  • Leverage: You can use the right-hand side of the model to consider what level a current or proposed intervention is working at, and therefore what kind of ‘leverage’ (potential impact) it might have in the system. Is it reacting to events, anticipating/preventing patterns, designing alternative structures, or transforming how we think about and respond to an issue? How could it intervene at a deeper level?
  • Focus on mental models: Possibly the most important element of the Iceberg Model is its emphasis on understanding the ‘mental models’ at the foundation of all our social systems. Real transformation is impossible without changing the mental models which created the system in its current form, as emphasised in the quote below. Changing systems means changing how we think about those systems.

“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves.

Robert Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

What are its limitations?

As the famous quote by statistician, George Box, says: “All models are wrong, some are useful.” Models are abstractions designed to help us understand and work with a more complex reality. But they are not reality, and each has its limitations. The Iceberg Model’s limitations include:

  • Over-simplicity: The iceberg’s strength is also its weakness. It works as an entry point for thinking about systems and surfacing underlying issues. It is too simplistic to provide a thorough analysis on a system that might lead to more comprehensive strategies. We therefore suggest using it as an initial brainstorm to start thinking about your system and perhaps kick-off a deeper analysis of that system.
  • Subjectivity: What is invisible or obscured to some may be quite visible to others. For example, people experiencing homelessness are likely to have a better understanding of the underlying patterns and structures– and the mental models underpinning them – than people who have not. We therefore recommend involving people with lived experience of the system in your analysis.


We have provided an example of the Iceberg Model applied to reoffending cycles in the criminal justice system. The data and information is taken from NPC’s systems analysis and report on this issue.

This is a summary version due to space limitations. We have included suggestions of an intervention for each level.

We have provided a blank template, which you can download from our resources section. You could print a larger version of this blank version and use post-its to brainstorm at each level, working your way from top to bottom. You could also import it to an online canvas for a virtual workshop.

Another use of the iceberg model is to think about how you might build better systems. With this approach, you can start by imagining the surface level events you want to see, then work out what patterns and trends you would observe; what structures would be needed to produce those patterns and events, and what mental models (shared beliefs) the new system would need to be built upon.

Example of the Iceberg Systems Thinking Model: Criminal Justice System

What are the events we see happening? - Recently released ex-prisoners committing crimes - Ex-prisoners becoming homeless - Delays in sentencing - Prison numbers increasing, especially on-remand prisoners What are the patterns giving rise to those events? - 65% of people released following short sentences (<12 months) are reoffending within a year - Increased prisoner numbers increases prison officer stress and reduces time for each prisoner - Average probation officer caseload is over 3X the recommendation - Prisoners are being released without support or appropriate housing to go What are the underlying structures are helping produce these patterns of events? - Structural racism and racial inequality - Homogenous 'tough on crime': political agenda - Cycles of poverty and unemployment - Use of short sentencing for minor crimes committed by vulnerable people locking them in cycles - Low use of alternative sentencing despite evidence of positive impact What are the 'mental models' which give rise to these structures and create this system? - societal belief in punishment as justice - Societal belief in generalized incarceration for crimes - Stigmatization of offenders that blocks compassion and understanding - Racism, classism-stereotyping people from background, appearance - Societal acceptance of 'underclass' of marginalized groups Intervening in the system React - Basic needs support for ex-prisoners Anticipate - prisoner housing schemes Design - Piloting of restorative justice schemes Transform - Campaigns to destigmatize people who have committed crimes

Blank Iceberg Model templates to download

Systems Practice Toolkit

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