The Iceberg Model for Problem-Solving

Great problem solvers spend more time understanding the problem than they do brainstorming solutions. The solution is evident if you truly understand the problem. The real problem. The iceberg model is a systems thinking tool that can be used to uncover the patterns, structures, and mental models that trigger problematic events.

What’s the real problem?

The solution is evident if you truly understand the problem.

How do you determine “What’s the problem?” We know that approximately 90% of an iceberg is underwater. Also, the width of an iceberg is nearly 30% larger than what you can see on the surface. The 90% of the iceberg that exists underwater is what creates the behavior seen by the 10% that exists above the surface.

You can apply the same logic to problem-solving. We are often alerted to a problem by a surface level event or experience. Creating solutions based on a single event may create a temporary fix, but will often result in a repeat of the problem. The Iceberg Model is a four-step approach to evaluating a problem. Your ultimate goal is to identify the root causes, underlying structures and mental models that trigger problematic events.

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them” ~Albert Einstein

The Iceberg Model

  1. Events : First, observe and describe what has happened or what is happening. You’ll have better results if you are able to duplicate (recreate) or reenact the steps that led to the discovery of the problem.
  2. Patterns & Trends : Then, determine if this event or similar events have happened before? What are the patterns of occurrences? What trends have you seen? Is there a particular situation, environment or role that experiences this problem?
  3. Structures & Systems : Then, identify the things, procedures or behaviors that contributed to this event. Why is this happening?
  4. Mental Models : Finally, what are the beliefs and assumptions that created and shaped the system/triggers that caused this problem?

Addressing the issues that occur below the surface (structures, systems, mental models) will get you closer to discovering the real problem and to identifying long-term, sustainable solutions.


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