Multi-focal thinking

Multi-focal lenses help you to see at different distances and depths. Like the eyes that have to accommodate in order to see at different distances and depths, thinking has to be focused to foreground and background phenomena


A very useful to multi-focal diagnose problems in a complex organization is the System Thinking Iceberg.
The idea is to look on different levels.

  •  The Event level. An event is an observable occurrence, phenomenon or an extraordinary occurrence
  •  The Pattern level. A pattern is a type of theme of recurring events or objects.
  • The Structural level. Structure is a fundamental, tangible or intangible notion referring to the recognition, observation, nature, and permanence of patterns and relationships or entities.
  •  The Mental Model level. A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behavior and set an approach to solving problems (akin to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks.
  •  The Worldview or Container level. A worldview refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual, group or culture interprets the world, reality, society, etc., and interacts with it.

We have applied the System Thinking Iceberg to a nagging problem within a complex organization, which we provide here as an example of multi-focal thinking.

The event level: 
 A company that maintains the infrastructure of railways has the last  three winters been confronted with frozen snow and icing of railway switch points. This has lead to massive disruptions of rail traffic. The management of the company diagnosed the events as communication problems: passengers, train operators, traffic control center and maintenance contractors.

The pattern level: 
Three consecutive years the management promised improvements to parliament and provided public apologies. Next year the passengers will be better informed about delays. The company will devise a plan to make the railway tracks “winter proof”, set up a weather forecasting station in order to timely allocate mobile heating and repair teams to frozen switch points, and to reduce the frequency of the trains. A project organization is set up with help of a consultancy bureau . The progress of the plan. will be checked by another external consultancy firm. Some millions are spent to install a better system to inform the passengers about delays.

The structural level: 
The problems are defined as reduced client satisfaction due to uncertainty and expectations. The measures are mainly of managerial nature. Maintenance of switch points is outsourced to commercial subcontractors, who don’t have any incentive to reduce the amount of maintenance or defects.

The mental level: 
The thoughts and reasoning that exist are that better contracting outsourcing, project-management and designation of responsible project managers, extensive communication to stakeholders and hiring external advisers will approve the situation. The problems of the railway points are due to circumstances beyond the control of the company. There is no notion that the repetition of the problem indicates a structural cause or a standard pattern of thinking about the situation.

The worldview level: 
The framework of ideas and beliefs trough which the employees see the reality are best summarized as a “managerial” culture. Only measures are undertaken that fall within the vocabulary and know-how of managers. There is a strong belief in separating policy and execution, in outsourcing, in political damage control are adequate in this situation.

As the author Paul Sandberg wrote: “ While working trough this diagram feel free to work back and forth between levels…As your understanding of a deeper level improves it may bring new insight and detail to the level above it”

The putting together of a few technical experts led by a facilitator in creative thinking methods could lead to a breakthrough. If they find ways to improve the operation of a railway point totally independent of the weather conditions and without complications like vulnerable AC heaters, it should make all other measures superfluous at once.

Photo: “Floating Iceberg” by Liz Noffsinger


7 Replies to “Multi-focal thinking”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: