Tools for thinking: Icebergs and Undercurrents
Mental Models for Smarter Thinking
Everyone knows that prevention is better than cure. Yet, when we face a problem, we often identify a cure and move on instead of understanding the source of the problem and preventing it from happening the next time. Iceberg analysis is a concept from Systems Thinking that helps dig deeper and identify the root cause.
Only 10% of the mass of an iceberg floats above the water, and the rest hides under the water. That’s the source of the analogy. Thus, according to the iceberg model of thinking, the problem we perceive is just the tip of the iceberg, and the real problem hides under the surface.
We can use the following levels of thinking to go deeper:
Events: You see the events as they are and take stock of the situation. For example, you have stomach pain. You could try to address this situation by eating pain-killing medication, but you are not addressing the root cause.
Patterns: What are the patterns and trends associated with the event? In the above example, this could be a pattern you notice: whenever you don’t eat on time, you seem to get stomach pain. Aha, now we are getting somewhere. Perhaps you have stomach ulcers, which you can address on your own. But wait, we can dig a bit deeper.
Systems/Structures: What are the structures and systems in place that cause these patterns to emerge? You could have gone through medical treatment for treating ulcers, but if the structures and systems that caused it are still there, you could relapse again. One or more of the following systems could be causing the pattern to emerge:
You tend to skip meals to work longer.
You have deadlines one after another, causing you to work very hard.
You haven’t set up a good functioning kitchen and don’t want to spend money ordering food often.
Mental Models: What are the deeper mental models that cause the structures to have been formed in the first place? You could believe that “career ambitions trump health” or “young equals healthy.” Or you could be a very conservative spender who thinks saving as much money as possible is imperative.
If you stop at the first level, you are merely being reactive. Getting to the second level helps you to anticipate the problems. The third level of thinking allows you to modify or design the systems. Finally, when you address the mental models themselves, you can transform the problem.
Let’s do another exercise using Iceberg analysis.
Suppose we want to address the gender gap problem, i.e., women get paid less than men for the same work.
While this is a complex problem, one pattern we could observe is that women who are mothers are affected more than other women.
The system in place here that causes the gender gap to widen between women who become mothers and men who become fathers is that women skip work (or work less) to be caregivers.
Finally, society’s mental model is that “caregiving is more of a woman’s duty than a man’s.”
I believe that leader's role is to work on the Structures/Systems and the Mental Models. In this case, a leader should transform society’s mental models surrounding caregiving. Changing mental models is hard, so designing and modifying the systems in place can also significantly help (more on this later). For example, this will involve improving access to childcare.
Iceberg Analysis at Work
As mentioned above, leadership requires thinking in levels three (designing systems) and four (transforming mental models). If you are in a leadership role but operating at levels one (reactive) and two (anticipating), you may be doing more management than leadership.
Even if you are not in a leadership position, you could utilize Iceberg analysis to help inform you how to work on problems. When you run into issues with a collaborator, try to come up with why conflict is arising.
Iceberg Analysis for personal development
If you have read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, he has two methods for changing or starting a new habit:
Instead of goals think in terms of systems. So instead of finishing a marathon, try to set up a system where you run 0.5 miles per day and then take it from there.
Change your identity. That is, become a runner instead of wanting to start to run.
While not directly related to Iceberg analysis, you can see that the third and fourth level of thinking corresponds nicely to the above two points. Changing your identity is akin to changing your mental models, and that’s the key to transformational change.
And, once you change your mental model/identity to become healthy, your stomach pain will go away for a long time.
Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows
A related tool for thinking involves peering under the water to look at the Undercurrents. Let's say your project succeeded spectacularly. While you could be patting on your back to say how smart you are and how your hard work paid off, it is possible that there were undercurrents that carried you to success. For example, many people who started using deep learning did well since the entire industry started going in that direction. At the same time, those practicing other forms of machine learning found themselves out of breath, paddling in the wrong direction.
If you think about it, many undercurrents in our lives pull and push us. For example, being born poor in a developing country creates a powerful negative undercurrent. Thanks to a positive undercurrent, being born in the US already gets you pushed to a decent position in life even if you didn't do anything.
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