The Iceberg Theory and the Gems We Can Learn

Diamond Beach Bridge

Ernest Hemingway coined the term “the iceberg theory” as a young journalist. He found that his writings had to focus on the surface elements without explicitly discussing the underlying themes. Today, the iceberg theory is used to help individuals and organizations to better understand the issues that exist below the surface. In our Instagram obsessed world of making things appear as they are not, the iceberg theory is at the heart of the challenges we face in not being truthful with ourselves and with others.

On a recent trip to Iceland I was exposed to nature’s beauty in ways I had never experienced before.  There was one place in particular that still amazes me.  The spot is called Diamond Beach.  It is a black sand beach along the southern side of the country.  The contrast of the black sand and the sea are amazing enough, but what makes this place so special are the chunks of ice that are washed up on the beach.  Diamond Beach is located by an estuary that is fed by a glacier lake. 

As the Jökulsárlón glacier warms, giant icebergs break off the glacier and flow across glacier lake towards the sea.  The icebergs remain in the glacier bay until they melt enough to make their way out to sea through a narrow pass.  In business we have all been exposed to the iceberg theory which states that only 10% of an issue is above the surface and that 90% much like an iceberg lies beneath the surface.  I have used this theory to help teams identify the hidden issues and to seek to understand root cause, but I had never seen the iceberg theory play out in real life.  There is a twist to the reality of the theory as it relates to Diamond Beach.

When the country of Iceland was building their Ring road which circumnavigates the country, they needed to construct a bridge across the mouth of Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.  The engineering quandary to solve was, how tall must the bridge be above the water surface to avoid getting hit by icebergs flowing out of the bay?  The answer lies in understanding the physics of an iceberg.  If 90% of the iceberg lies below the water’s surface then the bridge must be just over 10% taller than the water is deep to avoid being hit by icebergs.  This fascinated me.  The bridge is not all that tall and it appears it was constructed many years ago and is still intact.  The icebergs are trapped in glacier bay until they melt enough to make it through the narrow pass without dragging along the bottom of the channel. At the point they are small enough to make it through the pass the visible portion is always going to be lower than the bridge. The engineers astutely figured out the necessary height for the bridge based on the depth of the water. They looked at the problem from the bottom up rather than the top down. An approach that would be very helpful for organizational behavior practitioners.

In the hours we were at glacier bay and Diamond Beach we saw several icebergs make their way out to sea and we saw other icebergs stalled in glacier lagoon.  Those icebergs that do make it through the pass and out to sea are greeted by the angry Icelandic sea which further widdles away at the ice before washing it back up on Diamond Beach.  The beach glistens with clear ice diamonds that came off the glacier, across the bay and out to sea.  It is an amazing sight to be seen.

Video Clip: The iceberg theory in real life at Diamond Beach in Iceland

The experience left me with two thoughts. 

1) While this is amazingly beautiful, what role has global warming and manmade climate change had on Iceland?  The glacier appears to be melting quickly and all of that ice parading out to sea must be having an impact on rising sea levels that can be felt as far away as the coast of the USA. The lake has been growing at varying rates because of melting of the glaciers. The size of the lake has increased fourfold since the 1970s. I am concerned with the impact this and other glacier melts are having on the sea level.

2) When we talk about the iceberg theory in business, why don’t we discuss the depth of the hidden issues and how they constrain an organization?  In the case of the icebergs in glacier bay, until the below the surface area shrinks enough the iceberg remains stuck.  If organizations, could take more time to measure the depth of the unaddressed and unseen issues, they would be more likely to quickly solve problems that inhibit progress.  While the issues on the surface are real, the opportunities that exist to improve an organization by solving the below the surface issues are much greater. Taking a bottoms up approach versus top down will accelerate progress and get an organization more in tune with root causes.

As I returned to client work and the facilitation of team effectiveness sessions, the depth of the glacier bay impeding the progress of the icebergs has stuck with me. I continue to questions how deeply rooted are the problems that face most teams and organizations? If we spent more time focused below the surface could we make more progress and create better flow in our organizations? To do this effectively organizations must do a better job of establishing trust and allowing employees to be authentic. That which is visible is often superficial. How do we move below the surface to where the real power sits?