The iceberg metaphor for systems

A simple model for system ontology and epistemology

Two systems intertwined      In the posts of the CSL4D website I combine concept mapping with systems thinking for greater clarity of understanding of the latter. The concept map in this post is one I wish I had made six years ago. It came to me after watching the Systems thinking iceberg video of Dena Hurst. In the concept map below I roughly follow her explanation. I just added a few things of my own to show the relationships between two systems models: (1) a general ontological system model using the iceberg metaphor (in yellow); and (2) a general epistemological (inquiring and design) system model to show the importance of three systems concepts viz. inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. The models are complementary. One doesn’t make sense without the other and vice versa. So, perhaps, with some additions, the iceberg model turns out to be the philosopher’s stone of systems thinking.

iceberg model for systems

The ontological model       …. is depicted to the right. It explains what the system is. You can also watch Dena Hurst’s video, which takes only 10 minutes of your time. A system can be anything, from an office or a business to a development project or a country, even the world. Let it be clear that we are talking here about systems with humans involved. These human-inhabited systems are designed to produce value of some kind, but hardly ever do they only do as or what they are planned to do. All sorts of things are happening in them or as a result of them, some positive, some negative. Some of the negative ‘events’ may form patterns that may start alarm bells ringing. The first reaction is often to suppress the pattern. Suppression may have a number of negative consequences of its own: (1) requiring additional effort; (2) producing its own negative by-effects; or (3) causing the original pattern to morph into a different shape and timing, which requires more suppression, possibly starting a cycle without end. If the alarm bells are loud enough, it may be wise to look under the surface to see what causes the pattern. See e.g. Meadows or Kim. Often the patterns are the result of unexpected interactions between design elements of the system, such as policies, processes etc., or informal or emergent system characteristics. Or they may result from interference between two or more systems. The underlying mental models shape our worldviews and give meaning to all our activities and decision-making. They include biases, beliefs and assumptions (see e.g. Mitroff), some of them hindering good judgment.

Systems thinking       … looks at system structures and their underlying mental models to improve overall system performance. Structures can often be quickly redesigned or adapted, whereas changing mental models is usually a much more difficult process. None of this is easy, but it may be worth it if it can ensure adequate levels of competitiveness, sustainability or effectiveness.

The epistemological model     … is depicted on the left. It explains how the system can be understood. The model is needed to inquire into the inter-relationships between the designed or emerging structures and the resulting patterns. This may seem simple, but it isn’t. Experts suffer of biases as much as anybody else. One of the difficulties is that perspectives tend to ignore tacit knowledge and the underlying mental models. Tacit knowledge is difficult to identify and express. This means that for full and proper inquiry we need complementary perspectives. Therefore we need approaches for carefully contrasting and scrutinizing them. Some of the best approaches are critical and dialectical in nature. Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is a good example.

The mental pole     … of systems thinking is indicated in green. It links the system ontology and epistemology. People have particular perspectives of system structures because of particular mental models. Redesigning the structures may require (some) people to adjust their mental models. For them to do so, they must first be conscious of these models and see the relationship with some of the negative effects of the systems they are part of, be it as planner, decision-maker, employee or beneficiary (which, in a negative sense, may include people that are harmed by the system). Or even as systems thinker.

The IPB table     What remains now is to see if we can make a simple IPB table for Sally, the Tuesday latecomer in Dena Hurst’s story. IPB tables use the three fundamental systems concepts of inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries to arrange system observations and choices in a clear and simple way:IPB table - inter-relationships, perspectives, boundariesBoundaries are critical         From the IPB table it is clear that we need to look at inter-relationships and perspectives to understand what is going on in a system, but the really critical part is formed by the boundary issues: what is included in a system and what is not. In the case of Sally the question is whether her life system (‘she has a life, you know’) should be part of the work system or not. Or rather, should a proper work-life balance of employees be of concern to an employer? This issue touches also on bigger systems: an imbalance of work and life is believed to be one of the causes of the aging of Japan or the shrinking population of Germany. This in turn touches on even bigger systems: is it a good thing if Germany decides to make up for the birth deficit by immigration? What about the impact of EU immigration rules on The Netherlands, for instance, where the population doesn’t shrink at all, while the place is already very crowded with an extremely tense housing market in most of the country? These questions show the other end of the boundary issue. On the one hand it makes sense to expand system boundaries to make responsible and effective decisions, but one doesn’t want to expand them so much that no sensible decision can be made any more. More information about IPB tables and boundary critique can be found in Wicked Solutions.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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