The Iceberg Model Of System Change

The Iceberg Model Of Systems Change

We have all heard of the saying “that’s the tip of the iceberg” at some point in our careers. We usually use the saying to mean that there is a lot more going on with a situation than we can “see” at that moment. This week Jen Anderson shared this image with me. The image distills the importance of trying to understand what you can’t see when you are attempting to make changes in your organization. As a matter of fact, I took this image and used it immediately in some work that I was doing with a school entity.

Let’s break down how to use this image to help you make changes in your organization.

1. Read the image from the bottom up.

When you are embarking on a change in your organization and you want to build from scratch, you start from the bottom and build up.Ask yourself, your staff, and your leadership team what their mental models of {blank} are…you can place “schooling”, “learning”, “teaching”, or whatever will help you learn about your organization to make the changes you want in the “blank”. 

Mental Model: “A mental model is an explanation of how something works. The phrase ‘mental model’ is an overarching term for any sort of concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind.” (This definition comes from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits.) For example, you can ask what the mental models for schooling are to your group. What are the values, assumptions, and beliefs that shape (or you want to shape) the school?

System structures: Here is the important question for system structures. What structures does the organization need to have in place to “fit” the stated mental models? Interesting corollary question: do your current structures support your stated mental models?

Patterns of Behavior: When you look at your organization from a 30,000-foot view, what patterns of behavior do you notice? In the case of schools, you look for patterns of behavior from learners, staff, parents, your boss, and the greater community. What behaviors do you want to encourage through your systems that match your stated mental models?

Events: Take a look at the actions of people in your organization. In the best of all possible worlds, the actions of the organization align with your structures and mental models.

2. Read the image from the top down.

If you want to learn about the current state of your organization, read the image from the top down. 

Events: What are the actions of the people in your school. Spend time observing the people without judgment. You want to learn from everyone so you can discover the mental models of your organization.

Patterns of Behavior: Based on the event/action, what are the patterns of behavior that are defining your school or organization? Again, no judgment here because you are looking to learn from these patterns so you can interrogate the true mental models undergirding your school.

Systems Structures: This is where the rubber meets the road. based on the patterns you observed, how are the patterns related to each other/ What aspects of your organization allow the patterns to occur? these are the system structures.

Mental Models: Based on your answers to systems structures, you will be able to answer the “why” of those structures. What are the underlying values and beliefs about learners that can answer why the systems exist?There you have it. A mini-lesson on how to use this simple image to help you on your journey to becoming learner-centered.

BTW, I used this to kickstart a 90-minute conversation with a group of school leaders.

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About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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