“To understand a system it is not enough to consider first-order consequences. We should wonder if the people who created the system were using second-order thinking. That is, we should think about the consequences of the consequences. The reasons for making certain choices may be more complex than they seem at first.” -via Decision-Making and Chesterton’s Fence
There is this parable, which may or may not be widely known, referred to as Chesterton’s Fence. Chesterton’s Fence can be considered as a principle for creating greater awareness and approaching change in our systems, organizations, and even as individuals. Let’s begin by building some understanding to just what is this parable known as Chesterton’s Fence? Below you will find a quotation from Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, shared by Wikipedia, which provides some insight into this parable…
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly. won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
So, the question then becomes, what importance, if any, does this parable have for today’s modern leaders, systems, and organizations?
We can begin by digging a little deeper into the Chesterton parable from another frame. Brave New Work author Aaron Dignan shares his thoughts on Chesterton’s Fence in an interview from the article, Misunderstanding Innovation, We Create Systems That Inhibit Randomness and the Beauty of Serendipity: “The impact of that knowledge gap can be explained by the Chesterson’s fence parable, where people come upon a fence in the middle of nowhere and see the fence is not holding anything. They look at it, wondering: “What is that fence for?” They weren’t there when the fence was built. They don’t know to what reason it was built, but there definitely was an intent, because no crazy person makes a fence for no reason.” For which Dignan adds, “So, there is this gap of knowledge about the reasons why certain policies exist in organizations.”
Knowledge gaps that abound, as our organizational ecosystems are often littered with a plethora of these fences, from policies to procedures. We see them, we know they exist, we just don’t know where they came from, why they were created, and the mindset that was behind their construction. And in most instances, a why isn’t even necessary. These fences have been determined to be an obstacle and their removal or deconstruction and dismantling has already been determined moving forward.
Many leaders and organizations, don’t consider the intent of the fence as a necessary consideration, especially if it seems an unnecessary obstacle to progress. Meaning that the knowledge gap is seldom acknowledged or, if ever, closed.
Which can possibly have unintended (second and third level) consequences far into the future for the leader, the organization, and the system in which the fence was created. This is not to say that the fence should not be removed, but rather, the fence should not be removed before an understanding is created and consideration to knowing why or how the fence came to be.
Was there was some reason for why the fence was created and why it is there?
This is not to go against the idea that a policy or procedure has outlived its usefulness or has rendered itself irrelevant under the current context or circumstances, but what effect and impact will its removal have on the system? The parable is asking leaders and organizations to incorporate a deeper understanding, a more reflective stance, and a greater systems awareness towards change and decisions that are made.
Of how the understandings of the past and considerations for the future, will intersect in making better decisions in the present.
It is also in realizing that the parable of Chesterton’s Fence not only resides in the external, such as organizational policies and procedures, but internally, in our mental models and maps that we’ve each created towards how we view, frame, and approach our work, our organizations, and our world. The more aware and reflective we are towards these models and maps that we’ve created, the clearer we become towards our assumptions, behaviors, and bias’. For it is at that level of understanding that we can more effectively notice, consider, deconstruct, construct, and revise those models and maps to not only parallel pace the accelerating rate of change, but to meet the context and conditions that are continuously evolving under these current circumstances..
Whether, internally (individually) or externally (organizationally), the complexity, volatility, and speed of change in today’s world will often require ongoing systems interventions and disruptions.
So, any fence seen to be standing in the middle of the field with no rhyme or reason, serving as an obstacle, often does not qualify for the time to understand the underlying reason(s) or intent to why the fence is there, before determining to dismantle or remove it. It is that lack of awareness and understanding that can create unintended systems consequences from fence removals. Which can often be alleviated through reflectively and intentionally creating those deeper levels of awareness and understandings, be that internally or externally.
The article, Assessing Legacy Code Using Chesterton’s Fence, ushers forward a variety of questions towards determining why some fences were created and why those fences exist, which include:
- What did they know at the time?
- What couldn’t they have known at the time?
- What were they trying to accomplish?
- What constraints were they dealing with?
Questions allow us to play with the “what if” and engage the “rationale” behind these fences, as well as the level of complexity and considerations that were evaluated in erecting those fences. Thinking which can then alleviate often unforeseen or unintended consequences as decisions are made within our systems. Which also then builds better systems understandings and awareness for leaders and the organization.
For, far too often, fences are removed without knowing the intent to why those fences were constructed in the first place.
The parable of Chesterton’s Fence reminds us that deepening our understandings of the past allows us to better engage change for the future, thereby allowing for better decisions to be made in the present.
“Whenever you remove any fence always pause long enough to ask why it was put there in the first place.” -G.K. Chesterton