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Learning, Recursively


August 10, 2022

The idea that the sum of the individual parts equals the whole is nothing groundbreaking as a concept. An issue can arise though, when dissimilar or non-complementary pieces are fit together in a way that creates destructive interference. There are times when you can start with pieces of something that are not complete, with the underlying strategy that these pieces will grow to fill in the gaps and make a whole — that strategy is the basis of what we will discuss below.


Recursion is the idea that something is defined by itself and gets better by doing the same thing — repeating modified but similar behaviors — over and over again, learning and improving with each iteration. Something small that creates the larger whole by virtue of its own process or definition. In a strategy ecosystem, the origin point moving from the establishment of fact patterns to the synthesis of the design of a system can be quantified using the collected data in new ways each cycle. This can mean forfeiting pieces not useful or needed and acquiring new or productive elements with each new version.

In the summer, I garden in my free time. One of the staple plants of my garden is the hosta. Hostas are resilient, grow in different types of light, and are generally indestructible. Another characteristic of the Hosta is that it can be “split.” A piece of the plant can be taken from the main plant and replanted, and — in a relatively short amount of time — will grow to be equal in size to the original plant it was split from.

The smaller part, broken off from the larger organism, is strong enough to flourish on its own — by design and adaptive to whatever conditions it is moved to. So it is with strategy. The outlay of objectives and tactical infrastructure that supports those objectives should be designed such that their execution inherently affords their replication to strengthen the overall whole. In the case of my garden, if the hostas are split and then grow in different areas of my garden, filling in open spots and adding to the appearance and overall coverage — the sum of the parts equal the whole. It’s a successful ecosystem.

Let's contemplate a system that adds a level of complexity. Computer code. I'm sitting here typing into a computer, using a program that has many different subroutines. Some check spelling, some look for similar words, some watch for grammatical errors. Each of these, on their own, would be useful but cumbersome and inefficient if they were all pieces of different application programs. But they work together. I can tell if I'm spelling something wrong AND if my grammar is bad, and this program keeps me informed of those errors so that I can concentrate on the design of content, rather than focusing my attention on something — at least in theory — less integral or replicable as part of the work product.

What’s more, the system, which includes me as a user, learns each time. Every time I type a report or a memo, I learn something about the use of the program. The program in turn learns the idiosyncrasies of how I like toolbars or how I might misspell certain words. We do the same things again and again — together — and each time it gets better. But something else happens — the system gets stronger through each cycle. This is the same way strategies, when developed from complementary pieces, work in concert — rather than competition — to create a stronger overall effort.

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Joe Benesh

Joe Benesh is the President and CEO of The Ingenuity Company, located in Des Moines. The Ingenuity Company specializes in Strategic Planning, Diagramming, Organizational Design Thinking, and Leadership/Change Facilitation. He also teaches strategic planning at the University of Iowa in the MBA Program.