Recursiveness: A Key Design Concept for Transforming Organizations from Centralized Hierarchies toward what Militaries Hark as ‘Mission Command’ and ‘Mutual Trust’ in Complex Warfare Contexts (using Whitesnake lyrics and a Friends Episode)by : Ben Zweibelson
Recursiveness is not a common term offered in design workshops, nor does one find it in any existing military design doctrines, and on the commercial side of the design equation, one must hunt far and wide to find any specific mention of it. Karl Weick, Christopher Ansell, Haridimos Tsoukas, Douglas Hofstradter, Donald Schön, and postmodernists such as Deleuze and Guattari make many direct or implied examples and applications of what recursiveness is- but these also might get muddled in the educational application to new designers, strategists and planners.
This brief Medium post takes a playful, pop-culture direction on how there are a range of quite familiar examples of what recursiveness is, how it is foundational to significant design concepts and techniques, and why it is valuable to present these things in design education and facilitation. Indeed, we will explore how Whitesnake may have unwittingly built some recursiveness into their most famous song involving a model doing splits on the hood of a Jag, and also how a classic Friends episode offers a wonderful scene where recursiveness frames an absurd logical race toward infinity with whether the secret of Chandler and Monica is out or not. First, a brief and hasty explanation of recursiveness:
Recursiveness in mathematics is specific to how formulas can rapidly grow in an infinite sequence, and the mathematical context for recursiveness outside of “how mathematicians see their pristine, abstract world as the antithesis to the random, accident-filled physical world we all inhabit” is an important distinction here that Hofstradter raises in “I Am an Strange Loop” (p. 127). Hofstradter offers this quick take on mathematical recursiveness that likely inspired subsequent variations in complexity theory, political theory, sociology and postmodern thinking along similar but distinct paths:
“In the 1300’s, [Leonardo di Pisa- more often known as “Fibonacci”] Fibonacci had concocted and explored what are now known as the “Fibonacci numbers”:
1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597,…
In this rapidly growing infinite sequence, whose members I will henceforth refer to as the F numbers, each new element is created by summing the two previous ones (except for the first pair, 1 and 2, which we simply declare by fiat to be F numbers).
This almost-but-not-quite-circular fashion of defining a sequence of numbers in terms of itself is called a “recursive definition.” This means there is some kind of precise calculation rule for making new elements out of previous ones. The rule might involve adding, multiplying, dividing, whatever- as long as it’s well-defined. The opening gambit of a recursive sequence (int his case, the numbers 1 and 2) can be thought of as a packet of seeds from which a gigantic plant- all of its branches and leaves, infinite in number, grows in a predetermined manner, based on the fixed rule.” (Hofstradter, “I Am a Strange Loop”, p. 125)
Okay, but where are the Whitesnake musical references and Friends episode stuff you promised us in the teaser for this article, Ben? Get to the 80s nostalgia! I know, I know- but we need to get the math up-front to frame this properly. Patience…
Recursiveness in mathematical application forms the granddaddy of this concept, and must be given proper respect. It goes back to the 1300s, so it truly is a great-great-great-great grandfather of anything coming out of the 20th century blossoming of general systems theory, complexity theory, chaos theory, as well as sociology, political science, organizational theory and postmodernism from the 1950s onward.
In organizational theory (and also postmodernism, not to dive down that rabbit hole), recursiveness is “a continuous and interlocking cycle of perspectives… Building on complexity theory… recursiveness develops in organizations with “heterarchical” structures (with many-to-many linkages, rather than to the many-to-one linkages typical of [centralized] hierarchy).” — Christopher Ansell, “Pragmatist Democracy: Evolutionary Learning as a Public Philosophy”, Chapter 6. You cannot gain recursiveness through a centralized hierarchical one, even if you stick ‘Mission Command’ tenets to do such things inside of centrally produced, hierarchical doctrinal publications to make it so. That dog does not hunt. To realize such things, the entire institution needs to be reconfigured in ways it will resist outright.
So, in complexity involving humans and how they think, organize, socialize, and conceptualize, recursiveness is something that breaks away from the top-down, centralized hierarchical ordering and management that dominates much of the collective, recorded history of Homo sapiens. Quick links on complexity and emergence here:
Throughout antiquities through the Feudal Age, and into the early Modern Era, people were organized most often in strict, layered hierarchies with castes, ideological, racial, ethnic, cultural, occupational, and status-declared levels where they would correspond to the total hierarchically arranged organizational form. In militaries such as the British and most mainland Europeans until chipped away by the Enlightenment Movement (but also German Romanticism, and the Industrial Revolution coupled with the rise of Westphalian Nation State concepts), titled nobility would automatically qualify for the top ranks in the army and navy automatically. Their qualifications had to do with blood lines, not experience, skill, or proven merit-based evaluations on the battlefield. Indeed, commoners born into an agrarian or mercantile caste would be ordered to serve in an army (and those unlucky to be drunk in a seaside community might be conscripted into naval service through impressment and wake up sober on a ship that they would be forced to serve on for several years)- these things happened to particular groups by virtue of their status in the centralized hierarchy that few could ever break out of. Fans of Carl Von Clausewitz might be excited to know of his primary teacher, Scharnhorst, and how his family line would struggle in this fight to rise up into a sufficiently ‘noble’ status to become a military leader of any level… the Clausewitz family would insert ‘Von’ into their family name in a similar regard in order to eventually get young Carl the spoils of elevating a class or two into the ancient game of warfare leadership. Those interested in more on that should read: “Scharnhorst: The Formative Years, 1755–1801” by Charles Edward White. But we need to get to Whitesnake, so that we can really talk about Mission Command.
Mission Command, with all the madness, confusion, double-speak, irrationality, egos, military service ritualization and self-interests, is an important concept that is distinct from the far more dominant and historically recognized ‘Centralized Command and Control’. Just ask Alexander the Great, or Vladimir Putin, because centralized, hierarchical command and control of an army spans three centuries before the modern era all the way through modern day warfare in 2022. There are pros and cons to such centralized hierarchical warfare, with one ‘pro’ being how a nuclear armed nation controls the decisions of what nuclear weapons do and when (an existential crisis that is delayed every day we live only due to this centralization of authority to a handful of hopefully rational, measured, and smart enough elite politicians on both sides of a competitive, adversarial divide). The ‘con’ is easily found in the Ukraine where Russian forces cannot make tactical decisions without reporting all the way back to Moscow, or if one examines the Iraqi Army’s behaviors in the First Gulf War through their destruction in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, or countless other examples in military history.
So, if one is really doing ‘Mission Command’, one is breaking from centralized command and control, and embracing recursiveness in a military organization. This is where ‘Mutual Trust’ plays in, as an organization cannot really accomplish a “continuous and interlocking cycle of perspectives” in a “heterachical structured organization” complete with many-to-many linkages that permit someone on the periphery of the organizational “top” or “center” to act in an unforecasted, unrealized manner in order to accomplish broad, abstract intent. There must be mutual trust (every link, every layer, every region of networked nodes in the system) where if one decides to act in a new, emergent way that could trigger fears of uncertainty or risk, the trust is there to placate those uninformed or too distant from the emerging context. Essentially, innovation and experimentation must be promoted in that the local, the immediate, and the emergent are not going to ever be realized or predicted by any larger part of the heterachical structured organization than that sliver doing the Mission Command informed initiative. Yet trust in the mutual configuration promoted in Mission Command as a military philosophy of leadership is paradoxical to what is a hierarchical (not heterachical) mode where “trust…but verify” replaces such ideas of mutually directional trust. Trust remains in one direction, going up the chain. Or else, one risks promotion, compliance, or marginalization as a heretic for acting in any divergent, innovative fashion.
In a heterarchical structured organization (some of the rounded or flattened organizational strategies get at this- where differing perspectives can produce quite different shifts in organizational strategy, ethos and group alignments concerning novelty, experimentation and change), everyone else needs to trust in a collective way, as emergence will occur in any-which-way somewhere unexpected across the entire enterprise, often in a surprising and infinitely changing process of discovery and adaptation.
Bring on the Whitesnake:
In what is undoubtably one of the best rock song/video combinations of all time (this can be said about most any decent rock ballad of the 1980s with snark and sarcasm masking deeper urges of a nostalgic return to a simpler time), the band Whitesnake belts out some memorable lyrics while establishing multiple 1980s rock-and-roll tropes that would be repurposed, lampooned, and immortalized in Karaoke Clubs and pop culture memes for decades to come. But is there recursiveness in “Here I Go Again?” Do we find the ability to fold back upon the organization, where what is done is revisited in a new perspective, where action is contemplated before, during, and after in what Donald Schön (probably not a fan of Whitesnake) had a decade earlier created in ‘reflective practice’, something similar in Karl Weick’s “Knowing-in-Action’ that also developed a decade before Whitesnake’s brilliant writing of these rock lyrics… which both draw from the same well of complexity theory and general systems theory that military theorist and fighter pilot Colonel John Boyd would use to create his OODA Loop (Observe, orient, decide, act) that in some overlapping ways, shares qualities of recursiveness. Boyd likely did not enjoy Whitesnake either, but the High Priests of Boydian OODA will immediately appear and demand that “yes, Boyd loved Whitesnake, in fact- Boyd helped write the song” as the Boydian Priests of everything OODA will defend his conceptual model as a ritualized ‘Deus ex machina’ that must be used forever and ever in everything warfare. Okay, that was a bit snarky. And enjoyable… I regret nothing.
Some brief Whitesnake lyrics that may get me into copyright trouble:
I don’t know where I’m going
But I sure know where I’ve been
Hanging on the promises in songs of yesterday
And I’ve made up my mind
I ain’t wasting no more time
Here I go again, here I go again
Do you see the recursiveness implied in this first stanza? The singer acknowledges complex, emergent systems as non-repeating, in that one does not know where they are moving to next as the event horizon of tomorrow cannot be penetrated even by the most powerful predictive analysis. He is certain of where he has been, because the promises of yesterday are his institution insisting on how his historical frame must be interpreted. Karl Weick famously explained how humans do this with (paraphrased): “we think we remember the past in order to imagine how the future ought to go… but we don’t really do this. Instead, we imagine the past in how our institution, culture, society wants us to frame things so that we can remember how the future should be ordered and make sense to what must occur next.” Whitesnake cunningly (or unwittingly) offers “here I go again on my own” to encapsulate this notion that we are obeying our institutional frames and moving toward unexpected, emergent paths in ways that are tolerated and encouraged by the hierarchical structured (centralized command and control) organization that lacks innovative thinking. We do it over and over, just as military staff officers will remark “here we go again” as we start yet another campaign planning cycle by repeating and re-ritualizing the same tired promises that “by the end of THIS deployment, we should succeed in what the last eleven deployments could not.”
Though I keep searching for an answer
I never seem to find what I’m looking for
Oh Lord, I pray you give me strength to carry on
’Cause I know what it means
To walk along the lonely street of dreams
Whitesnake, in doing what everyone does in attempting to make sense of a complex reality, is searching for answers. We can do this deductively, inductively, or abductively. Searching for answers deductively moves from a general theorized statement to the localized problem set, or “every new potential romantic partner Whitesnake’s lead singer meets could end up being the love of his life, which is what he at a teleological level (purpose-driven logic for why we do what we do, how existence works, that happiness can be achieved in some romantic long-lived success in this application) why he continues to move past each failed romantic partnering. Teleological structures are abstract- but we all hold to various ones based on our social paradigms. Teleology means that we are explaining complex phenomena in reality in terms of the purpose those events serve rather than of the cause by which they arise. Pivoting back to Mission Command, many militaries today believe teleologically (but doctrine writers are unwitting or, sadly, anti-intellectual enough to ever suggest this openly in military doctrinal publications) that war is best won through embracing the complexity of warfare versus a positivist mode of creating brief pockets of order, slicing and freezing war into smaller, manageable chunks where general rules can be established and applied, and the entire whole sewn back together so that we beat our less cunning enemies. Mission Command, as a war philosophy, supports the teleological belief that complex warfare requires a full acknowledgement that positivist planning and strategy are doomed to fail, and an organization ought to best align to what are recursive structures and form/function. The irony is that military doctrine speaks from both sides of the mouth, offering the recursiveness of Mission Command and the importance of ‘Mutual Trust’, while then equipping military forces only with the positivist trappings of various linear, engineering-inspired, utterly hierarchical decision-making methodologies coupled to natural science inspired theories and linear-causal conceptual models (centers of gravity, lines of effort, ends-ways-means configurations of action, and levels of war to name but a few).
Here I go again on my own
Going down the only road I’ve ever known
Like a drifter, I was born to walk alone
And I’ve made up my mind
I ain’t wasting no more time
Whitesnake lyrics are a fun way to tease out some organizational recursiveness that shows infinite patterns of repeating actions with the expectation that this time, something different will happen. Whitesnake suggests that while the singer is a “drifter, born to walk alone”, he keeps trying to find love and heal his broken heart, and somehow break this pattern so that he can finally be happy with a long-term, lifelong love to enjoy life. But recursively, he must remain a drifter, born to walk alone, meaning that the next love will collapse and fail, making him once again realize “here I go again, on my own”, and repeat his never-ending, infinite journey down the road alone, searching for answers he never can answer despite already knowing the rules of this game and his institutionally sanctioned frame for why the world is as it is.
Military organizations do this repetitively, particularly when they realize they are failing at something. There is an inability to deeply question the why of organizational practices– such as “why do we believe military campaign design must be done as we do it”, or “why do we agree when authorities insist that there is a nature of war that is fixed like natural science and only a character (read- characteristics) of war can change with the times”, or “centers of gravity are real!”- these things dare not be questioned. Various high priests of Boyd, Clausewitz, or in certain special operations, unconventional warfare circles, the scriptures of T.E. Lawrence are above and beyond reproach. As one doctrine writer once insisted to me, “doctrine is the best thing we as a military has… you should not fight it. It is a proven collection of known things that work. If you figure something out that is not in doctrine, you just need to tell us and once we prove that you are correct, we will put it into the doctrine!” Easy-peasey. Yet recursiveness deflates the centralized hierarchical ordering of military doctrine. One cannot really have a functioning heterarchical structured organization capable of doing Mission Command with Mutual Trust as intended, with a recursive mode of “continuous and interlocking cycles of perspectives” that build in emerging, nonlinear, and often unprecedented and unimagined directions using a centralized, positivist, directive form of command and control. Tawny Kitaen can straddle the organizational hood as often as the institution desires, but this does not make for actual recursiveness in multi-layered, divergence perspectives on what one ought to do next in a complex security context.
We just get trapped like Whitesnake, saying “here we go again” and repeating activities such as campaign design over and over, deployment after deployment, knowing that we are yet again going down that only road we’ve ever known, like a drifter, we are born to keep doing these things over again no matter how many times we keep failing. And we do not waste any time, as we are about to do it again because we are waiting on love’s sweet charity, and just as we dare never question the authorities of our war paradigm, we are “gonna hold on for the rest of our days” and stick to a process that cannot ever succeed in complex reality, but the act of doing the process establishes institutional self-relevance in remaining unchanged.
On Chandler and Monica:
In the Friends television show that some of you might have heard of (more snark), there is a significant plot development where Chandler and Monica start dating and begin to fall in love, and attempt to keep their relationship a secret from the rest of the friends. Of course, this could not last and while Joey was sworn to secrecy first, eventually Rachel and Phoebe discover the secret. However, nothing happens in a direct, linear, orderly fashion. Comedy ensues. The script goes as below, where Rachel and Phoebe decide to play some tricks on Chandler and Monica by trying to get them to admit the relationship in a bizarre way. Phoebe pretends to be attracted to Chandler and assumes her romantic moves will immediately cause Chandler to admit he is dating Monica and cannot date her. Monica figures out the ruse, and orders Chandler to play along. Phoebe is surprised and alarmed that Chandler would do such a thing, but quickly realizes that Monica is orchestrating a game upon their game… and we enter into a wonderful example of recursiveness as a process. Chandler is ordered by Monica to call Phoebe and pretend to be into her and ask her out on a date:
Chandler: Hello Phoebe, I’ve been thinking about you all day. (He’s holding the phone so that Monica can hear it as well.)
Chandler: Well you know that thing you said before, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued.
Chandler: Yeah, listen, Joey isn’t gonna be here tonight so why don’t you come over and I’ll let you uh, feel my bicep. Or maybe more.
Phoebe: I’ll have to get back to you on that. Okay, bye! (Hangs up.) Oh my God! He wants me to come over and feel his bicep and more!
Rachel: Are you kidding?!
Rachel: I cannot believe he would do that to Mon — Whoa! (She stops suddenly and slowly turns to point at Joey. Joey is avoiding her eyes.) Joey, do they know that we know?
Joey: They know you know.
Rachel: Ugh, I knew it!
Joey: (disappointed) I would say ‘Thank god! Everybody knows. It’s finally over.’ But that hasn’t been working for me.
Rachel: Oh I cannot believe those two!
Phoebe: God, they thought they can mess with us! They’re trying to mess with us?! They don’t know that we know they know we know! (Joey just shakes his head.) Joey, you can’t say anything!
Joey: I couldn’t even if I wanted too.
In the scene before this one, where Monica and Chandler interrogate Joey and learn that Phoebe and Rachel know about their secret relationship, but also that the two are not revealing this and instead are attempting to mess with Monica and Chandler, Monica and Chandler have this exchange of dialogue that factors into yet another fold in complexity where recursiveness is found:
Monica: Oh man, they think they are so slick messing with us! But see they don’t know that we know that they know! So…
Chandler: Ahh yes, the messers become the messies!
In this gem of an episode for Friends fanatics, the two lines of “they don’t know that we know that they know” uttered by Monica and “They don’t know that we know they know we know!” uttered by Phoebe in the following scene illustrate how an organization (should we frame the Friends as one) can operate in a heterarchical fashion so that there is a continuous and interlocking cycle of perspectives. It must be stressed that the writers for Friends had a goal of comedic experience in mind for the audience- this is intentional recursiveness to a level of absurdity to make it funny. Yet part of why this is funny to the audience as this unfolds is that we all have also experienced this recursiveness happen. We have said “here we go again” whether with Whitesnake and failed love, or with militaries attempting to do campaign design in positivist, linear-mechanistic, reductionist fashion toward a complex, emergent and dynamic security context.
Design concepts are difficult. They require concepts, theories, models, methods and terminology that are intentionally outside of the dominant military paradigm simply because the institution insists on keeping as many of them out as possible. Modern military thought and action is aligned exclusively to a Newtonian Styled, positivist form of approaching war. Anything outside of that frame is banished… although many terms are stripped of their original meaning and inserted like ‘buzz word bingo’ into new forms of doctrine. This process of assimilation pleases the institution in that new fancy terms are added, but nothing of importance is challenged or contradicted across vast tombs of doctrinal texts and recipes for how one must do warfare. Recursiveness is a valuable concept to understand so that one can realize when the institution is doing recursive activities, and when organizational form and function drives us toward repeating single and double-loop thinking that reinforce institutionalized preferences of behavior and action rather than gaining a new, disruptive perspective that could open up innovation, creativity, and (most fearful to the institutional preservationists) change. On single and double loop thinking by militaries, see:
If Whitesnake lyrics and Friends plot twists make for useful metaphoric devices to enable transfer of these concepts, design facilitators and educators might find this Medium post valuable. There are many other ways to do this, such as with Abbott and Costello for ‘epistemology’ available below: