Systems thinkers have long adopted the iceberg analogy as a way to describe the events, patterns, and underlying structures that drive the behaviors that affect performance within a system.
The iceberg is a perfect metaphor because it depicts just how much of what is really going on lies beneath the surface—out of sight. For many, out of sight also means out of mind. That mindset limits an organization’s ability to improve, live up to its potential, and consistently accomplish its stated goals and objectives.
In this analogy, events are represented by the tip of the iceberg, or the small portion visible above the waterline. Events happen now. The midsection—the partially visible portion of the iceberg just beneath the waterline—represents repeatable behavioral patterns that play out over time. As events are strung together, they create these recognizable patterns or trends.
Even further below the surface lies the underlying structure. Think of the structure as the foundation that creates the patterns and events. It’s the causal driver of behaviors. The hardest-to-see portion of the structure is the most important because it gives us a deep knowledge of how things really function and helps us predict behavior. When we understand the underlying structure, we can take higher-leverage actions to create different behaviors that result in the outcomes we most desire.
Robert Fritz, the founder of Structural Thinking, has been examining the effects of structure on performance for over three decades. Structural Thinking is based on two main principles: the inescapable laws of structure and the path of least resistance. It’s part art and part science—a comprehensive set of tools, techniques, and methodologies used to examine an underlying structure then restructure it to promote individual, team, or organizational success.
Structural law states that energy follows the path of least resistance. Imagine a river flowing along—the riverbed is a good example of the path of least resistance. The underlying structure determines behavior—the spots where the river is raging or where it simply drifts along based on the formation of the underlying riverbed. You can change the underlying structure to form a new path of least resistance. Changes to the riverbed will affect the behavior—the direction or flow—of the river.
There are two types of structure. Structural tension leads to advancement, or a process of continual improvement. Structural conflict leads to oscillation, or a pattern of advancement followed by a setback. It’s the one-step forward, one-step back syndrome.
I recently attended Fritz’s Fundamentals of Structural Thinking workshop at his comfortable conference facility in southern Vermont. Robert and Rosalind Fritz guide participants deep beneath the surface to learn how to see underlying structure: the flows of people, resources, information, habits, and agreements that drive individual as well as organizational behaviors.
It’s a captivating process, as you develop the ability to recognize the forces at play, unravel the complexity, understand the influences, and see relationships. Little by little, you see the potential for creating a new structure that supports improved performance.
Structural Thinking is a straightforward, effective, and fun mental workout that takes practice. You need to retrain your mind to think in pictures and be willing to hang out in an “I don’t know the answer” state of mind. As you engage in the first few exercises, you are fully aware of the chatter in your head and your mind’s desire to problem solve.
You also notice the clarity of mind that happens when the process clicks, even though it may only last for a few seconds at first. As you gain experience, your mind starts to accept this new view, and a few seconds turn into a few minutes. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to clear your mind and focus.
We know that moving down the iceberg provides a deeper understanding of the structure and a clearer picture of the dynamics and complexity at work in a system. It also provides increased leverage for driving lasting change. Structural Thinking provides a key in analyzing the “why” behind existing behaviors and freeing yourself to create new structures that produce better results.
Mark Alpert is president of Pegasus Communications and is a special guest contributor to Rethinking Complexity.