Submarine Model

for Organizational Systems Thinking

(c) 2023 by Denis Sunny

Systems Thinking Applied to Organizational Systems
Iceberg Model of Systems Thinking

The Submarine Model is based on the Iceberg Model of Systems Thinking

tailored for the context or Organizational Systems.

So far, I have not managed to identify the author of this model.
When I find one, I will readily provide their names here.
All (social) systems, despite their unique contexts, share common patterns of cause-effect relationships at a conceptual level. This is similar to how different people are unique yet possess fundamentally similar biological systems that operate based on the same principles.

This context-independence is what makes the Iceberg Model of Systems Thinking applicable across various (social) systems.
The model suggests that for any event involving people, where certain patterns emerge, these patterns are shaped by underlying structures within which individuals operate. These structures, in turn, are formed by people (whether the same individuals or others) based on their mental models.

In the context of organizational systems, it's crucial to grasp the logical meaning of the model's components, which is outlined in the right column of the diagram on this slide.

Another key concept is that each higher level of the model is influenced by the level directly below it. This means that in cause-effect relationships, the cause is always found at the model's lower level, with the effect manifesting at the level above.

From Iceberg to Submarine

The Iceberg Model is a powerful tool for conceptual thinking with respect to a broad range of social systems. However, its general nature comes at its cost.

For instance, every attempt to apply this model in the context of organizational systems requires first to map the terms of this model on those more specific to organizational systems. This becomes even more complicated when people compare their system models based on different mappings.

The Submarine Model of Organizational Systems Thinking is based on a unified approach to this kind of mapping. It was rigorously tested in real-world scenarios and against the proven laws of organizational behaviors, including the following:

  • Culture eats Strategy for breakfast (Peter Drucker)
  • The performance of a system depends on how the parts interact, never on how the parts act taken separately. (Prof. R. Ackoff)
  • Structure eats Culture for lunch (by Denis Sunny)
  • Structure drives Culture(by Craig Larman)
The Submarine Model
This model can be applied to any organizational unit with its distinguishable purpose - from the entire company down to a single person within this company. While layers remain the same, their meaning will depend on what is the subject of the modeling.

Outcomes are caused by the Outputs of the considered organization. Both outcomes and outputs can be impacted by External Factors.

- Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast (a saying widely associated with Peter Drucker)
- The performance of a system depends on how the parts interact, never on how the parts act taken separately. (Prof. R. Ackoff)

In other words, outputs and outcomes directly depend on the Process and Behavioural Patterns of people involved in the creation of outputs (including their preferences and priorities at work, what they focus on, etc.)

- Structure drives Culture (by Craig Larman)
- Structure eats Culture for lunch (by Denis Sunny)

The creation of the aforementioned patterns is strongly impacted by what is called "structures" in the Iceberg Model. In the context of Organizational Systems Thinking, we are speaking about the entire Organizational Design playing the role of such "structures". To learn more about what stands behind it, refer to the Goal-Centric Model introduced later in this document.

Someone is always authorized to decide about organizational design - one or many people, the same as those doing actual work or completely different ones. And this kind of decision is always driven by something. For instance, one of the most common Drivers of Organizational Design is the level of satisfaction of the decision-makers with the current situation.

  1. What the organization's top management does actually control? They control their own actions of driving organizational design and the results of those actions are their product - organizational design itself. Hence, these two layers of the Submarine Model are Controllable.
  2. The behavioral and process patterns usually change following the changes in organizational design with significant inertia. However, the strongest impact on these patterns still comes from the organization - they are CULTIVABLE through the organizational changes.
  3. The external factors considered in this model separately are the ones OUT-OF-REACH for the considered organization.
  4. Outputs and outcomes are INFLUENCABLE as they are impacted by behavioural and process patterns and external factors which are all out of control by the organizational management.


Probably, the most apparent specific of the Submarine Model (and actually why it is associated with a submarine) is its vertical element System Feedback. It represents cause-effect relations coming from upper levels (Outcomes, Outputs, Patterns) down to the Drivers of Organizational Design.

For instance, the satisfaction of decision-makers may depend on business outcomes thereby creating feedback from the system to its drivers.

Unlike many individuals, the entire existence of organizations usually depends on their outcomes (performance). And the people driving organizational design do usually care about those outcomes. So, while it is not available in the Iceberg Model, such the dedicated element as System Feedback makes much more sense in the context of Organizational Systems Thinking... at least statistics-wise.

There are three frames based on this Model for your different use cases.

All the frames are available for printing or digital use on Miro and Mural.

Guided Version
Use the provided guidelines to fill the canvas

A simple example to improve understanding

Blank Version
Plenty of free space to minimize distractions from your organizational root-cause analysis
Get your printable versions of the frames based on the Submarine Model as part of the ORCA Facilitation™ Primer.

So far FREE of charge!
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Submarine Model © 2023 by Denis Sunny

is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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