Theories of systems thinking and theories of problem solving employ different levels of thinking or understanding, and may order them:

  • in the Vision Development Matrix [1]: from vision at the top to events at the bottom
  • in the Iceberg metaphor for Systems Thinking [1]: from events at the top to patterns underneath.

Systems thinking approaches problems by asking how various elements within a system influence one another.

The story telling or narratives that support the thinking can be at different levels. The visible world around us is represented by the top of the iceberg, but this is only a “manifestation of patterns and structures that are below the water surface, hence cannot be observed directly”. What happens under water is what creates the behaviour that is observed.

Both the iceberg and the Vision development matrix represents a hierarchy of levels of understanding with observable events at one end and mental models at the other end. In the table below we list the levels from events to vision because event-level storytelling is accessible to most people, and events have the largest variety in manifestations. Visions and mental models on the other hand, should enable this variety, but have less inherent variety (once they are in use).

Level of perspective Current reality (AS-IS) Desired future (TO-BE)
observable events What happens? What should happen?
patterns and trends What similarity do events expose over time? What are desired similarities and trends?
system structure What is causing the observed patterns? What will cause the desired patterns?
mental models Current (mis)Beliefs, expectations, values and attitudes Beliefs, expectations, values and attitudes that will enable and maintain the needed structures
vision The current vision in use Statement of what one aspires to become

1. Kim, Daniel H., “From Event Thinking to Systems Thinking” The Systems ThinkerVol. 7, No. 4 (May 1996), pp. 6-7.
2. Senge, Peter, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday; 1990.