Iceberg Diagram

The iceberg diagram enables a group to drill down beneath the surface of events to appreciate underlying structures and mental models that are perpetuating the observed system. This enables groups to become aware of leverage points for fundamentally transforming the system’s dynamics.

When to use it?
Frame: The iceberg diagram is particularly useful for exploring the legacy system. Once a group has mapped the current system, the iceberg diagram enables the group to question: why is the system perceived the way we see it?

How to do it?

  1. Brainstorm events (what has happened?). Draw an iceberg and list these in the part of the iceberg that is above the surface of the water.

  2. Identify patterns (what continues to happen?). Write these underneath the events, just below the water.

  3. Recognize structures (what maintains the pattern?). These should be listed beneath the patterns.

  4. Surface mental models (what assumptions and beliefs created the structures?). List these at the very bottom of the iceberg.

  5. Where are the leverage points for system improvement? Circle factors that we have influence to change and that could have a significant positive impact. Factors could be at any level, although deeper down usually represents higher leverage.

Groups of 5-9 people can participate in this activity. The method scales to larger groups up to 40 if needed, but you will require a larger whiteboard to capture all the feedback.

1 hour.

Pros and Cons

  • Adds depth to the discussion.
  • Groups are empowered to consider choosing alternative mind sets and structures.


  • Groups tend to become negative during brainstorming in this activity so if this is the last activity you perform in a session you may end on a low note.
  • Final iceberg diagram can have many items on it so it can be intimidating to external audiences and may need to be simplified for presentation purposes.


  • Groups will not always stick to the category you are brainstorming on, so if you think a suggestion fits better under a different category, move it there.
  • To also show influences, consider drawing arrows that connect events to the underlying patterns, structures and mental models.
  • If the group is being overly negative, ask them what are some good features of the current system? Who benefits from the current system?
  • Keep asking why to get the group to drill deeper.



Additional Resources

Reos Partners, Systems Thinking with Icebergs

Northwest Earth Institute Iceberg Model