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The Art of Systems Thinking - Part Four

This is the final post for the blog series on ‘Systems Thinking’. In this blog we will explore the level of thinking called ‘Mental Model’. As you can see in the ‘Iceberg Model’ below, this stage is situated at the bottom of the pyramid. We are now looking at a form of thinking that is completely below the surface. Delving this deep can allow us to see the bigger picture of how a system actually works.

By understanding each stage of the ‘Iceberg Model’ we have the ability to make choices about how to best intervene to effect change. In this case, how we can effect changes by observing our ‘Mental Model’.

The Iceberg Model (Northwest Earth Institute, 2017)

                                              Mental Model (Transform): 

‘Mental Model’
is the most in-depth and often unobservable stage that focuses on attitudes, beliefs, models, expectations and values (Northwest Earth Institute, 2017). As the ‘Iceberg Model’ suggests, successfully accessing this level of thinking in your organisation can lead to ‘transformation’ (Northwest Earth Institute, 2017). Whilst the concept of transformation sounds great, this stage may not be easy to access. It is highly dependent on the level of trust and maturity in your organisation. But don’t fear, if your organisation is not ‘quite there’, you can make efforts to initiate the journey to access it.

Each and every person has their own ‘Mental Model’ with varying beliefs and attitudes etc. These beliefs are learnt and obtained as our life progresses - from our childhood right up until adulthood. These beliefs unconsciously drive our behaviour and impact our decision making throughout our lives. An organisation is a system of “people who work together in an organised way for a shared purpose” (Cambridge University, 2017), so you can imagine the impact each person can make on the way the organisation runs and the decisions that are made with their differing ‘Mental Models’.

When you are addressing a problem in your organisation, ask yourself…

How could my ‘Mental Model’ or the ‘Mental Models’ of others be impacting this problem?

Imagine that your organisation is working towards promoting 'work-life balance'. You are running programs to support this, constantly communicating this to the organisation and have made a decision that all staff need to leave on time each day. Despite your efforts, staff still seem to be staying behind, supervisor expectations are not supporting the change and whilst it ‘sounds’ like everyone is on board, actions are representing something very different. The ‘Mental Models’ of the employees involved could be in complete contradiction to this. You could even go as far to say that the person who suggested more ‘work-life balance’ may not even be entirely on board mentally. This can be hard to comprehend when on the surface everyone is completely on board for the initiative. What we are looking at, is what is happening below the surface.

In my opinion successfully delving to this stage requires some level of vulnerability. There needs to be an element of trust in your organisation that supports your employees to be completely honest about how they feel about the initiative and how their ‘Mental Model’ may be holding back its success. It also requires employees to delve deep into themselves to discover what their underlying values/beliefs may be. Values and beliefs can be so ingrained that they often drive behaviour unconsciously and employees may not even know that they have them (REOS, 2010).


1. When you are addressing a problem in your organisation reflect on how your ‘Mental Model’ and the ‘Mental Models’ of others may be impacting it.

2. A great way to explore your ‘Mental Models’ is by getting all employees involved with a problem or initiative in a room. In either teams or as individuals, have employees write down any ‘Mental Models’ that they believe they or the organisation have in relation to the problem (e.g. “we don’t trust our employees to work flexible hours”) (REOS, 2010). Ensure that there is no judgement in this process and that employees are supported to be completely honest in their reflections without repercussions. You can obtain some great data through this exercise.

3. Delving to the ‘Mental Model’ stage of the ‘Iceberg Model’ is a “powerful way for a group to better understand the system they are working in as well as their own connection to the situation” (REOS, 2010).

Can you think of any ‘Mental Models’ in your organisation that are potentially having an impact on events taking place? This is the final blog for our series on ‘The Art of Systems Thinking’. Here at Belvista Studios we want to continue to support businesses and ourselves to be the best we can at our craft. If you are interested in ‘Systems Thinking’ we would love to connect with you and continue this learning journey.


Cambridge University. (2017). Dictionary, Organization. Retrieved from:

Northwest Earth Institute (2017). A Systems Thinking Model: The Iceberg. Retrieved from:

REOS. (2010). Systems Thinking with the Iceberg: A tool for multi-stakeholder System Site. Retrieved from:

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