Systems Thinking Tool: The Iceberg Model

As the CCR team continues to participate in the Addiction Treatment Starts Here: Community Partnerships learning collaborative, we are using system design tools to think differently about our work. Systems thinking requires looking at interrelated factors to understand their combined effects. One tool we’ve found to be very helpful is the Iceberg Model, which helps to examine events presented and the root of such systematic issues, related to an iceberg because much of the structure is hidden out of sight.

Our team led a focus group last year using the Iceberg Model to determine events, patterns, structures, and mental models regarding Opioid Use Disorder. An example includes:

  • Event: What is happening at the surface level.
    • An individual is overwhelmed when re-entering the system of care.
  • Pattern: Similar events that have been taking place over time.
    • The individual does not know how to build healthy relationships or feels loneliness
  • Structures: What is causing the pattern (physical things, organizations, policies, rituals).
    • There is a lack of mental health resources, limited access to harm reduction services, and limited hours at treatment facilities.
  • Mental models: Attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations, and values that allow structures to continue functioning as they are.
    • There is stigma within jail or Medication Assisted Treatment facilities and a lack of understanding.

In this way of systematic thinking, you can see how various factors often build on one another and the need to explore these levels to promote positive change. From our example, feelings of being overwhelmed may by due to not knowing how to reach out and/or from the fear of encountering stigma, therefore we can focus on creating understanding relationships in our program.

Try using this tool in your next project! For more information, visit