Strategic Doing and the Iceberg Model of Systems Thinking

Strategy in open networks — teams, collaborations, clusters, and ecosystems — is different. Successful network-based strategies require us to think differently, behave differently and do our work together differently.

Making this shift requires a new set of ten skills to design and guide strategic conversations. These skills follow simple rules, but they are not easy. They take practice to master.

To understand why this discipline takes time and practice to master, we can view the challenge through the lens of systems thinking.

Systems thinking is a perspective, a language, and a set of tools that can be useful in solving complex problems.

The actual dynamics of complex systems are usually hidden from view. The iceberg model is one method that helps to surface them. (Derived from Freud’s iceberg model of the mind, systems thinkers have used the iceberg model to enhance our understanding of complex socio-technical systems.)

The iceberg model presents complex systems in four levels.

1. The first level encompasses events which we encounter on a daily basis. It’s what we take in with our senses. Most of our knowledge is at this first and superficial level, which may be likened to the visible tip of the iceberg.

2. Hidden from view is a second level, the patterns that can link discrete events with invisible threads. We encounter this level, for example, when analysts use regression analysis to establish patterns between two variables.

3. Even more hidden is a third level, systemic structures, which seek to explain the patterns. These structures are often represented visually as stocks, flows, and feedback loops.

4. At the fourth and most hidden level are the mental models, the patterns of thought and understanding, that underpin our response to complexity and uncertainty.

When we view Strategic Doing from this perspective, we see why mastery takes time. It is rooted, ultimately, in what Senge in The Fifth Discipline explained as “personal mastery”: an awareness of our mental models (our “automatic thoughts”) and how we can shift them.

Research on positive deviance helps explain why Strategic Doing works. Through tightly guided workshops that follow a protocol of simple rules, people behave their way into new ways of thinking.