Using a coat-stand to take down a fence. I once knew a Chief Executive who told me that the most important thing that came with their job was the office coat-stand.
The reason? It was because the coat-stand allowed them to permanently wedge open their office door. They had wanted to unscrew the hinges and remove the door, but apparently that was a breach of fire regulations. So they used the coat-stand as a wedge, and every evening someone would return the coat-stand to the opposite wall. Like clockwork every morning the Chief Executive, without making a fuss, would wedge it back against the door. They were one of the most interesting people I’ve met.
What that Chief Executive was doing was removing a fence. Taking down a ‘barrier’ that had existed for a few decades prior to them arriving. It was a carefully considered act. They even changed things in the outer office (previously as welcoming as a doctor’s reception area…) to help people feel like they could ‘drop in’ at any time.
This happened in the days when open-plan offices were relatively uncommon. Chief Executives used to typically exist behind many layers of ‘security’ or ‘fences’, so it was a big deal. I was hugely impressed.
Breaking down the hierarchy. The Chief Executive in question had previously been a high ranking officer in the military. One day I asked them “what’s the biggest difference you’ve seen between the military and public services?” Their answer surprised me. In the branch of the military where they had served, the junior ranks had no problem in talking with the senior officers, and the senior officers listened. In their view, public services (at that time and in that place) were far more hierarchical than the military!
Opportunities for the people delivering services at the sharp end, to talk to the Chief Executive, were almost non existent. There were barriers and fences, both invisible and visible. The Chief Executive had done their best to remove just one of the many by wedging open the office door with a coat-stand. An act that was both physical and symbolic. They understood exactly why the ‘fence’ existed, and why they were taking it down.
Not everyone thinks about fences, or why they exist. I’ve been thinking about fences a lot recently. The last post I wrote was about ‘invisible fences’, the things that influence peoples’ behaviour for reasons they don’t understand. Frequently stopping them from doing something; like fences. The practice is often described by the phrase “because, that’s the way we’ve always done things around here…”.
I’m quite keen on removing barriers and fences – but only if it does no harm or something positive. To understand that, you need to find out why the fence was put there in the first place. That seems like a sensible thing to me and apparently I’m engaging in some ‘second order thinking’. Not just thinking about the consequences of a decision, but the consequences of those consequences.
Chesterton’s Fence. The source of ‘don’t remove a fence until you understand why it was put there’ is attributed to G K Chesterton, paraphrased from his 1929 book, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic. It was apparently one of the favourite sayings of US President John F. Kennedy. Chesterton might have written it in the 1920’s but it feels very relevant now. Also, I wouldn’t associate JFK with ‘old school’ thinking or an anti-progress agenda. It’s just a sensible thing to do.
I’d recommend a look at this article on the FS (Farnam Street) blog for a detailed explanation of Chesterton’s Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Thinking.
A lesson for people driving change… The main point of this post is to encourage people to to stop, and think about the consequences of removing fences, breaking down barriers and smashing silos. The people who put those things in place weren’t stupid, weren’t deliberately setting out to cause problems and probably didn’t have the resources to create things, ‘just for the fun of it’. Before dismantling something stop and have a think… if I don’t understand how it got “here”, do I run the the risk of making things much worse? Think of it as an ‘investment’ or due diligence.
Free tattoos for Silo Smashers. A Chief Executive who occupied the office before the ‘coat-stand wedger’ once offered me a free tattoo. The ‘offer’ was along the lines of… “If you mention ‘smashing silos’ once more I’m going to tattoo it on your forehead”. That Chief Executive fully understood why the barriers (silos) existed in the organisation and the consequences of recklessly removing them. I fully deserved the ‘offer’ of a tattoo. I was younger and a bit more stupid and reckless in those days, hopefully I’ve learnt a bit with age and experience.
So, What’s the PONT?
- Putting up a ‘fence’ takes effort. People don’t do it without a reason.
- Think about the consequences of taking down a fence. If you don’t understand how it got there, you run the the risk of making things much worse.
- If you have decided to take down a fence, make a clear statement that its gone. Using a coat-stand to wedge open a door can be a very effective symbol.
Pictures. Both mine. One from a French Atlantic Beach. The other one from somewhere warm.