Don’t remove a fence until you understand why it was put there. Chesterton’s Fence.

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.

Now this is a ‘fence’ that demands a bit of thinking.

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?

  1. Putting up a ‘fence’ takes effort. People don’t do it without a reason.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

3 Responses

  1. That’s still first order thinking, it’s still the consequence of the decision, if there were no first consequences it’s merely a functional decision, do it, or do not. Kahneman got a Nobel Prize for proving it was Type 1, most of the time.This is where the 1960’s Cyberneticians basked in their own magnificence, recreated a crappy version, of what a couple of centuries of Greek knowitalls had sussed a couple of millennia earlier, albeit with different words. No matter what the systems tinkers tell you and if memory serves, you may have seen me make a room of auditors smile by suggesting, that silos aren’t inherently evil.

    Lots of the fence loving and hating stuff comes from Investment Bias, you love the things you did and despise the things you didn’t. Sadly it’s an inevitable consequence of people brought up in private schools to believe in a particularly self indulgent interpretation of the Laws of Thought.

    I once knew (or at least knew of) a CEO who’s first act in settling into his shiny office was to sign a building contract to have a wall and security door built between him and the rest of executive corridor, which was itself, miles away from anyone who did any proper work. It spread like wildfire and unfortunately, that temperament may have spread through some of the management, who ended up being publically ashamed of themselves.

    But let me tell a better story about fences, that my personal #GuruGymreag has shared. There was once a wiley old herdsman, who noticed a broken gate. It led to the field of the prize bull, who’s romantic endeavors were so legendary, that they let the ‘Old Boy’ live beyond his full prime. Nobody does that because 2500kg of old bull, is bloody clever and dangerous.

    Nonetheless our herdsman, considering the mayhem of Old Boy on the run, popped over the gate to repair the bolt, nodding to the farm hand, that the bull was over the far side of the grass. A few minutes later another hand walks out of the milking shed and freezes, dropping his shovel. The herdsman looks up and sees his frozen face. The herdsman then straightens up really slowly and carefully as a sudden whoosh of breath hits the back of his neck. A sinking and distinct sense of jeopardy, is followed by the realisation that 2 tonnes of bull had essentially, sneaked up on him!

    He turns slowly around, to be confronted with Old Boy looking him straight in the eye from almost 7 feet up in the air. Our hero had no idea what to do and leaned back to release his best ever, full swinging right hand hay-baler, onto the end of Old Boys ringed nose. There was a brief meeting eye to eye, without no fence for the first time in many years. Old Boy barely blinked, snorted, then nudged the Herdsman gently with his nose and – as he swears on telling of the story – the bull kept full eye contact, as he slowly and deliberately turned away and trotted back up the field; leaving three farmers with as much relief, as amazement.

    Never underestimate the power of a well placed fence.

  2. I’ve learned about the challenges of trying to take down fences without fully comprehending the plans that went into the development, the foundation they were built on and the motivation of those who built them and are investing in maintaining them.
    While it is important to appreciate fences are built for a reason (so was the Berlin wall), they can pop up unexpectedly when turning over new leaves or looking under rocks.
    Sometimes the person with the map/plan or orienteering guide has gone off the beaten track and those following the lead are left trying to work together to repair the damage the fence has done. When building fences, it is good to have some clear signage for those who are new to the route and encounter the fence as a barrier to progress.

  3. […] What I’m trying to say is that you need both parts, process and flexibility, and it isn’t one size fits all. Some processes are absolutely necessary most of the time. Things like safeguarding policies, health and safety, financial regulations etc, they have all been created for very good reasons. There is a quote, apparently a favourite of President John F Kennedy, along the lines of “never take down a fence until you understand why it was put there in the first place” (link). […]

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