March 8, 2019 Message to Members

Mental Models

A few weeks back I shared with you a brief outline of my introduction to Compassionate Systems Leadership and Thinking. I was incredibly fortunate to be part of the BC team that participated in a 3 day workshop facilitated by Peter Senge and Mette Miriam Boell. The workshop provided a Systems Thinking foundation to build on and introduced participants to a practical set of tools that learners of all ages, cultures and backgrounds can easily put into practice.

The Iceberg Model was introduced at the recent School and Community Mental Health Conference and participants were led through an exercise by facilitator Tracy Smyth in how to use it and apply it to our own professional or personal contexts.

I have posted a more in-depth resource to BetterEducate – An Introduction to Systems Thinking , which outlines 2 models, the Iceberg and Ladder of Inference, in the context of Systems Thinking.

In very brief and simple terms, the Iceberg Model addresses the reality that we all develop mental models over time. Our experiences and interactions build our mental models and they help us to more efficiently make decisions. This ‘efficiency’ can be a positive or a negative outcome of mental model development. Waking up to another cold can be used to demonstrate how the Iceberg Model reveals a more complex set of systems connections [adapted from Northwest Earth Institute].


  1. The Event Level

The event level is the level at which we typically perceive the world—for instance, waking up one morning to find we have caught a cold. While problems observed at the event level can often be addressed with a simple readjustment, the iceberg model pushes us not to assume that every issue can be solved by simply treating the symptom or adjusting at the event level. Solution – buy cold medicine.

  1. The Pattern Level

If we look just below the event level, we often notice patterns. Similar events have been taking place over time — we may have been catching more colds when we haven’t been resting enough. Observing patterns allows us to forecast and forestall events.

  1. The Structure Level

Below the pattern level lies the structure level. When we ask, “What is causing the pattern we are observing?” the answer is usually some kind of structure. Increased stress at work due to the new promotion policy, the habit of eating poorly when under stress, or the inconvenient location of healthy food sources could all be structures at play in our catching a cold.

  1. The Mental Model Level

Mental models are the attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations, and values that allow structures to continue functioning as they are. These are the beliefs that we often learn subconsciously from our society or family and are likely unaware of. Mental models that could be involved in us catching a cold could include: a belief that career is deeply important to our identity, that healthy food is too expensive, or that rest is for the unmotivated.

I hope you find a few minutes to apply the Iceberg Model to your own contexts and are able to reflect on the mental models that you are bringing to your analysis and decision-making processes.

Take Care,