Open Thinkering


TB872: Regression and recursion

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

The image depicts a scene with three individuals, each with a thought bubble. Person 1 (P1) on the left, Person 2 (P2) on the right, and Person 3 (P3) in the center. P1 and P2 are standing while P3 is in a thoughtful pose, possibly crouching or sitting.

P1's thought bubble shows a "Hierarchical model" consisting of a typical organizational chart with boxes connected in a tree structure. This represents a traditional approach to organization, where each box likely represents different roles or departments in a hierarchy.

P2's thought bubble displays a "Recursive model," which contains circles within a larger circle, each with arrows pointing clockwise. This suggests a system where components are nested within each other, continuously influencing one another in a cycle.

The central figure (P3) is surrounded by thought bubbles from both P1 and P2, indicating that they are considering both hierarchical and recursive models. This may suggest that P3 is in the process of synthesizing these two perspectives or models.

The overall scene suggests a discussion or contemplation of different models or systems of organization, with each person contributing a distinct viewpoint. The circular boundary that encapsulates P1, P2, and P3 suggests a boundary of a system or a domain where these interactions and thought processes are taking place.

One of my favourite artists is Will Holland, aka Quantic. Here are the lyrics for his track ‘Infinite Regression’ from the album The Fifth Exotic, which quotes Dr Hasslein in Escape From The Planet of the Apes:

Here is the painting of a landscape
But the artist who painted that picture says
– Something is missing. What is it?
It is I myself who was a part of the landscape I painted
So he mentally takes a step backward
– or ‘regresses’ — and paints…

…a picture of the artist painting
A picture of the landscape
And still something is missing. And that
Something is still his real self
Painting the second picture. So he
‘regresses’ further and paints a third…

…a picture of the artist painting a
Picture of the artist painting a
Picture of the landscape. And because
Something is still missing, he paints a
Fourth and fifth picture…

…until there is a picture of
The artist painting a picture of the
Artist painting a picture of the
Artist painting a picture of the
Artist painting the landscape

So infinite regression is–

–It is the moment when our artist
Having regressed to the point of
Infinity, himself becomes a part
Of the picture he has painted and
Is both the Observer and the observed

Regression and recursion are two related, but distinct concepts. They have defined meanings in mathematics, but for the sake of my purposes here, in a systems thinking context, I’m going to define them in the following way:

  • Regression — used to analyse relationships within a system for the purposes of identifying how variables influence each other. Regression can imply a system’s reversion to a prior state, often viewed as a (strategic) retreat to stability. It’s also possible to use regression techniques to examine historical patterns to predict future system states.
  • Recursion — a process where the system’s outputs loop back as inputs, creating continuous feedback cycles. Recursion helps us understand the dynamic nature of systems: learning and adaptation occur through iterative feedback loops that shape and are shaped by the system itself.

So while regression in systems thinking looks for relationships and patterns to predict or explain, recursion involves a process where the system’s past or current output becomes an input in a self-referential manner.

The image at the top of this post from the TB872 course materials shows how different practitioners can have different frameworks and models that affect how they understand situations. This reminds me a bit of the book Images of Organization by Gareth Morgan, which I studied as part of my Ed.D. I’ve often used that as a touchstone when consulting, as it’s a useful reminder that people can conceptualise of the organisation within which they work in very different ways.

For example, I remember being told by someone that a new Principal that came into the Academy in which I was working was “very hierarchical”. I saw that as a massive red flag, as it seemed anathema to a learning organisation. That’s not to say that double-loop and triple-loop learning can’t happen within hierarchical organisations, it’s just that it’s the exception rather than the norm.

By reflecting on what we are doing as practitioners, we can achieve higher-order thinking, abstracting away from the specifics of the situation to understand what it is that we do when we do what we do.

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