Suppose you were serving as a government bureaucrat for a small town. One day, you’re taking a walk with a junior colleague and come upon a fence that fully blocks the road. Even weirder, the fence just ends on either side of the road.
Upon closer inspection, you see tire tracks on the earth surrounding the ends of the fence. Clearly, the citizens have taken to arriving at the fence and simply driving around it.
Your colleague clicks his tongue at the road obstruction and says, “I’ll put in a ticket to remove this fence. It's obviously not doing anything except hurting traffic.”
You, being the more intelligent and well-read bureaucrat, quip with a response from GK Chesterton: “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.”
We have learned at dysrupt that this principle, named Chesterton’s Fence, is a difference-maker. It ensures every consulting sprint can be a successful sprint. When we are a third party coming into a new organization it is easy to quickly call out the many Chesterton’s fences. Rarely is that the best place to start and is often less than fruitful*. When you don’t know why people spent time, money, and resources standing something up it can be counterproductive and even dangerous to go tearing it down. As they say, knowledge is power. This fuels our 360° degree review process.
If you are looking to be a change agent in an organization, it is wise — and can even be fruitful — to take a step back and make sure that you’re not focusing on changing the Chesterton’s fences until you can fully explain why they were put up in the first place. Who knows, maybe that "useless" fence on the road is keeping at bay a quite particular and angry bull that refuses to walk on the surrounding grass.
*Our internal reminder is that it is possible to disrupt too much.
** Thank you Eberhard Grossgasteiger for the title photo