Center for Innovative Cultures

Helping organizations thrive by unleashing the talent, passion, and potential of people at work

The Iceberg Model

Edgar Schein, grandfather of the study of organizational culture, introduced the iceberg model as a way of visualizing some key cultural features.  We’ve adapted it to the elements we see in high-performing organizational cultures.

 Three key features of the iceberg model:

  1. Some of an organization’s culture is visible at first sight, but much of it is below the waterline, and out of sight.

  2. There is an “architecture” to culture.  What’s visible is importantly supported by an often unseen infrastructure.

  3. Because the unseen infrastructure actually gives the meaning to what’s above the waterline, it’s not always possible to harvest “best practices” from one organization and transport them into another.  The hidden infrastructure gives the nuanced “definition” to visible artifacts and actions.  We may use the same words, but they have different meanings.

Iceberg Model_SMALL.png

Practices and Artifacts

Practices are the repeated, routine behaviors of organizational members—how they behave in meetings, how they deal with conflict (or not), whether they banter or are all seriousness, and so on. Artifacts are the physical structures and things that have specific meanings within a culture— whether personal space is everywhere clean, or covered with family photos, or with Dilbert cartoons, or whether everyone has the same size office or some people have offices while most people have cubes, and a few people have corner offices with magnificent views.


Principles are the underlying do's and don'ts of an organization that give rise to specific practices and artifacts. "Minimize power differences," for example, may be a principle that would give rise to a practice of everyone eating together in the same cafeteria space, and everyone having the same footprint of open-space office furniture.


Values are the "values-in-use," not the "espoused values.” Espoused values are posted on walls, and left there. Values-in-use are the actual values that underlie principles and practices.


Axioms are the foundational assumptions of the organization. Axioms are what MUST be true, to support the superstructure of the culture—values, principles, and practices and artifacts.