Friday, 15 April 2016

Systemic Thinking it is!: The Iceberg Model and your Wellness Goals

“Gained another 2 kgs? Now, how did this happen? Never mind, I kinda knew that this won’t work!” Ronit stepped off the weighing scale, the third time since breakfast. More than the snail like progress in the last two months, he’s worried about the pain in his knees, with all that extra time at the treadmill. The lesser said about the diet plan the better!

So many of us who’ve grappled with weight management and wellness woes recognize these mixed feelings in our journey. Some do manage well, whereas a vast majority end up frustrated, as good results elude them. Be it the embarrassing lack of progress, or the inability to ward off temptations and thereby being seen as not in control, and “loss” of self-worth at not being able to live up to one’s promises to oneself. The process of change can be intensely challenging. Why is it that in spite of all the ‘right’ actions, best practices and strategies, getting to the desired outcome feels so harrowing at times? What is the missing link that’s making many “weight-loss” programs flounder pretty quickly?

Even when the actual change process seems so tough, how do some among us manage to stay cheerful and positive? Where are they drawing that inspiration from? What is the source of that ‘little’ extra energy and drive that has made all the difference?

The Iceberg Model from the world of Systems thinking is a fascinating framework to study how people, organizations and entire systems behave and respond to change. It has several applications in competency management too. Let’s look at Ronit’s weight woes using the Iceberg Model.

Typically, we see only a small portion of the iceberg above the surface of water. The bulk of the iceberg remains hidden inside the water. From a Systemic Thinking point of view, human beings are also like icebergs. We have a very visible part of our persona that is reflected in our actions, behaviors and in the results/outcomes that we create. This is what people get to observe. But, there is a much larger part of us that isn't so obvious to others. It is this hidden chunk of the iceberg that usually has a bigger impact on our behaviors, actions and outcomes. It includes the following:

  • Patterns and trends that drive our actions and behaviors.
  • Dependencies that impact the patterns and trends.
  • Our Mental Model (including attitudes, values and beliefs)
  • And our sense of Identity

Ronit has been struggling with his weight issues for a long time. His trainers are frustrated at his “lack of discipline” at the gym. His inability to stick to the recommended diet regimen has compounded the problem. Looking at the mirror makes him feel awful too. All those kilos have piled up once more after the recent project delivery at office.

This is the visible side of Ronit’s weight struggles. His behaviours, actions and outcomes are fairly straightforward to figure out.

But, there’s got be a story behind this visible end of the iceberg. Even though Ronit wants to regain his health and fitness levels, what is leading to these poor outcomes? Rather than dissing it as “lack of discipline”, “lack of commitment”, “laziness”, how about exploring the larger portion of the iceberg?

Let’s take a look at the full iceberg now.

It’s interesting when you look at the portion of the iceberg that remains hidden. At the deeper levels, one gets to see aspects of the core personality, v.i.z, attitudes, values, beliefs and identity. Any change process has better chances of success if one gets to work at these layers. No doubt, the deeper layers are tougher to work with too!

Trends, Patterns of Behavior & Dependencies

It’s not that Ronit has been totally unable to show results. His issue seems to be wild fluctuations of weight and other health parameters. Maybe some of it is due to his hectic work schedule and irregular food timings. His wife is equally busy in her career. And both of them are struggling to find time for exercise. Also, the yo-yo swings in his weight and his irregular schedules may have wreaked havoc on his metabolism. He seems to have hit a plateau.

We now have a slightly better understanding of trends, patterns and dependencies. Time to go further till we reach the deepest layers of the iceberg.

Attitudes, Beliefs and Values:

While Ronit does get excited about fitting into his slim-fit shirts, the excitement is tempered by some of his beliefs. Maybe these beliefs are based on his recent experiences. He looks at his seniors in office. Well it almost seems that being out of shape is becoming synonymous with “success” and “prosperity”. Indeed, at times we can merrily choose to see what we like to see! Talk about confirmation bias. “And these diets are tough to follow. Very impractical indeed”. He also believes that so many things are “beyond one’s control”, so what’s the point in getting all so worked up about them?

It’s not as if we’re always conscious about all these beliefs and their impact. Many of us don’t even get time to list out these beliefs and validate the underlying assumptions. So, they often work in a rather insidious manner. Sometimes prompting us to give up when we are almost nearing the finishing line. Like stopping at 80% when all it needed was 83% efforts to make a decisive change in fortunes.

It is possible that in Ronit’s value system, freedom and autonomy are non-negotiable. The military style regimen that his personal trainer has designed for him is totally at odds with that. Do you see the connection now? Some of the “convenient” attitudes and beliefs may have sprung up from this very  disconnect. Imagine instead, Ronit and his personal trainer sit together, brainstorm and identify several options first. Then Ronit gets to pick what works for him and make a genuinely tailored fitness plan. Will the probability for success increase now?

Values, attitudes and beliefs together form the mental model that affects our motivation, thinking skills and thereby our ability to respond to situations.


Several versions of the Iceberg framework stop at the mental model of values, attitudes and beliefs. Looking at self-identity may also give us valuable additional perspectives. Our self-image plays a central role in our lives after all. If Ronit sees himself as an “Inspiring Leader”, maybe he might want to be seen as a well-balanced personality that people look up to. Great stamina and energy are critical so that his thinking skills are exceptionally good. Once he sees this larger picture, it may give him that extra motivation to change some of his beliefs and attitudes. As I mentioned earlier, well-thought out change at the deeper layers of the iceberg can substantially and positively impact the other layers. Very often, we spend too much time chasing “efficiencies”, and get absolutely exhausted in the process. That’s what happens if we spend most of our time trying to “improve” our actions and behaviors without looking at the deeper layers of the iceberg.

On the other hand, maybe Ronit seems himself as a cut-throat and diehard perfectionist at work (someone who cannot settle for anything but the most audacious outcomes). In this case, deep down, success in his career matters over everything else. So, even though he likes the idea of getting into those slim fit shirts, his motivation isn't that deep-rooted. You’ll see his beliefs, attitudes and actions will all get aligned accordingly. Maybe he feels guilty when he leaves office after official working hours, and heads to the gym. This “healthy diet plan” may seem like too much of an indulgence. At a “logical” level he is aware of how a healthy body can do wonders for his productivity. How nice it’d be if the “logical” part of the brain was driving our lives more often, isn't it? Well, Good luck to his personal trainer!

So, how does your iceberg look like? What are the outcomes and behaviors that you wish to change? Don't just analyze the trends and patterns that seem to “lead” to these outcomes. Go further and look at your mental model, and also your identity. Yes, the process can be disconcerting at times. Some unpleasant truths may pop up. 

It’s about observing how you feel about yourself during the change process. And that’s driven by your sense of self-worth. Your self-identity. It is also about what this change means to you. Much beyond getting that nod of appreciation from your partner/spouse, and envious glances from others. How has this journey changed you from inside? What have you discovered about yourself and your self-efficacy?

In the long run, it’s gonna be an exciting trip for sure!

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