The Iceberg


The iceberg model, used in system dynamics, is a base note to our scribing practice. To diagnose a room and reveal where sense-making of the spoken word is most needed, we can refer to these tiers: Events, Patterns of Behaviors, Structure, Mental Models, and Vision. With this framework, we surface leverage points where the system – and the scribe – can place attention to facilitate desired outcomes.

My very first step when working with an organization – of ANY scale – is to figure out where the person, panel, team, or whole group is coming from, what they are aiming to achieve, and how i might intentionally scribe to facilitate within their comfort zone and also stretch it, if possible/helpful. (See also: 4 Levels of Scribing) Usually i go one tier deeper: if they are functioning at a behavioral level, for example, i will scribe to try to reveal the structures. If that expands the boundaries of the conversation, i will tune into the mental models in play, dancing down the iceberg to create results we want all to see.

Here is a breakdown, as applied to visual practice, and clearly this is highly interpretive. (A zillion interpretations of the Iceberg are out there. Search on Peter Senge or Daniel Kim to get a feel for the origins of this thinking.)


Events are like data, actual occurrences that we see, above the metaphoric waterline, like noticing a lone bird flying. In the spoken word, i think of events as individual notes – words or phrases, single statements, stand-alone ideas, comments, parts. These combine to tell stories and can be most readily represented through illustration and more literal pictures, combined with words. An example might be something like this, representing human migration:


Patterns of Behavior

Patterns convey parts moving within structures. A flock is a formation based on a need, for example, to migrate with weather. Adapted from Kevin Kelly, Out of Control, Chapter 2: “Hive Mind”: 

“A bird on the fly, however, has no overarching concept of the shape of its flock. “Flockness” emerges from creatures completely oblivious of their collective shape, size, or alignment. A flocking bird is blind to the grace and cohesiveness of a flock in flight…. In the 17th century, an anonymous poet wrote: ‘…and the thousands of fishes moved as a huge beast, piercing the water. They appeared united, inexorably bound to a common fate. How comes this unity?’… A flock is not a big bird. Writes the science reporter James Gleick, ‘….High-speed film [of flocks turning to avoid predators] reveals that the turning motion travels through the flock as a wave, passing from bird to bird in the space of about one-seventieth of a second. That is far less than the bird’s reaction time.’ The flock is more than the sum of the birds.”

We can look for flock-like behavior in patterns of speech too. This occurs when one idea or person follow another, for example: “We live on 1 planet Earth, but our footprint on average is 1.5.” And then: “This will lead to turmoil and chaos, and eventually human migration.” – John Sterman (whose talk on Systems Thinking and Sustainability is the source of all these images…) The words come out with causal relation, and one concept FITS with another to form a gesture or new shape of it’s own, only a pattern because of grouping.



Structure shows how pieces of the picture form and relate. This is the land of dance, where every part of the picture holds together in a natural coherence. Connections surface across gaps, and it’s our place to organize them into an order that we perceive. We don’t look for one bird; we look for two, for three, four, forty birds and then inquire into what holds them together. Are they a couple? Siblings? Friends? Of different flocks? Adversaries? Do they face each other, turn away? Join? Avoid? Does one communicate to another bird on another branch? In another tree? What are the conditions of the tree? Protected? Exposed?

All these aspects (and many more) are components of the structure INSIDE a story, dialogue, conference theme, multi-year project. Every piece has context. Find it. Draw what is relevant to surface the inherent structure, or relationship of the parts, that wants to be revealed.


Mental Models

This is the domain of thinking and beliefs, “deeply held theories about how the world works” – Daniel Kim. This might be a more subtle territory, not at all explicit, where a deeper, almost non-verbal, listening is required to understand where people are coming from. In the iceberg drawing above, I drew an egg and a bird to represent the age-old question of “Which comes first?” that challenges our idea of where life begins.

If we take the scribed sustainability image as an example, the ENTIRE picture represents a mental model that the current climate change crisis is induced/amplified by human behavior. Some people think otherwise! But knowing (and sharing) the belief of Prof Sterman, my own mental model was very aligned with the presentation. I have also been in situations where my mental model entirely clashed with that of the presenter. Without going into detail, it required much suspension in order to be open to what ideas were being shared that i wanted to accurately represent.

This territory is fine and subtle; the beliefs are in the room and they are in us. As scribes, we are there to help represent the room, and resist layering in our own theories. That said, it is possible to help reveal biases in order to activate reflection, and, perhaps, shift mindsets.


This is the deeper territory of aspiration, hope, calling, that which can set the tone for all else pushing upward through the iceberg. I see this less as a space for projection of vision, where an aim might be set to be reached or strived for, and more as a domain of possibility, into which a scribe can sense, and then hold in spirit (even without drawing!) to really join the system as it’s future self, and share the intent for the vision to come to form through the thinking and action of the people.

Usually i leave a 1/3 to 1/4 of surface real estate for vision – it always comes, never fail. Even if faint, listen, trust in it, and you will hear it’s tune.


References: Peter Senge, John Sterman

U.Lab Scribing

Week 6. This was all about chalk marker and trying to keep it simple, legible, and focused on actionable inputs. Less “feeling” more direct. It’s all an experiment!



Week 5. A high res link to black (white version proved too tricky to do, for now…)


Week 3. This week worked ONLY in chalk (last live session was chalk marker – much thicker – but leading to a tricky clean up!) and the inversion revealed the softness of the material. The scribing was intended to activate the space, as live facilitation. Perhaps need to redo the artifact. Or… not, and it’s fine as is!



Download PDF of the white, inverted, image

Week 1. What a surge! With over 25,000 enrolled and an estimated 10,000 viewing today, from 192 countries all around the globe….. the space activated, and these images resulted. My hand, yet an entirely shared will. To view the session: More on U.Lab: MITx: 15.S23x




Here, too, are some higher resolution pics Otto used in U.Lab (and recent Wisdom 2.0 Conference) with the dark background.

And some key slides w/a white background:



Visual Practices

Because folks often ask for ways to develop their scribing practice, and because the field of graphic facilitation seems RIPE for learning, i’m taking a turn to share some suggested processes in a do-it-yourself kind of way. These can be self-guided, in solo or group contexts, and mainly offer ways to explore an intersection of why, how, and what. The when & where, that’s up to you! Hope this is useful. Feedback very welcome. More to come as i refine chicken scratch workshop notes…

All Visual Practices below relate to A Practice Model for Scribing as a primary framework, and of course relate to each other.



Being: Identifying Presence
Click here for .pdf download – Group process, 30-40 minutes

5 Personal Story: Guide Share an experience accessing your “presence” to get through a challenging situation. Explain: What was difficult? What were you called to do? What did you access internally to find the necessary resource and navigation? How did you feel throughout the experience? What did activating your presence enable?
5 The “Zone” Explore why presence matters in a systemic context. Refer to post: Presence and the Reciprocal Zone.
10 Personal Story: Learner Suggest people get comfortable in their seats and close their eyes.“Notice your feet firmly planted on the ground, your torso straight, your head reaching the sky. Breathe in and out, and settle into your body and the moment.

Recall an experience where you felt most alive and connected with the world and put yourself back in that picture. What was the scene – what does it look like, smell like, what is the temperature, what colors are around you, what textures? How do you feel? Where is that experience located in your body, if at all?

Considering this scene, imagine your sense of awareness increasing. What are you noticing as you take in all that is around you and become one with this time and place?

When you are ready, slowly come back to the current moment and open your eyes.”

Take a few minutes to write about this experience in your journal. Then turn to a neighbor and each share your story while your partner listens.

5 Practice Now at a board or with a page of paper, take a minute to get centered again. Recall your scene, get rooted, connect to the room (and system at large) and breathe. Notice when you are in a zone and not, without judgment. This practice is less about what your drawing will look like and more about your quality of being as you hold the pen, approach the blank surface, and let content come through your hand while you draw.

In this video, we have someone connecting profoundly with the earth, which is how he feels most alive. Listen to his story without over-thinking it, take it all in, be completely present in a field of awareness for yourself and for him, attend to your state of being, identify what wants to be named, and with that knowledge, draw.

Native Perspective on Sustainability –

5 Reflect As a whole group, gather and reflect on the experience (before spending time looking at any drawings.)

Possible questions to ask: What did you hear? What was this man describing? How might it relate to scribing? Were you able to find access your presence? Were you distracted, and by what? Where might you find windows of opportunity to deepen your presence in relation to your practice?