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Leading Change .

Change is good no doubt. But reckless change can sometimes cause more harm than good. If it’s not thought through, reform can turn into deform.

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Have you heard of Chesterton’s Fence? It’s an interesting concept, with a powerful lesson that can help us think differently about driving change in our lives. The term owes its origin to the author GK Chesterton who first wrote about it in his book titled The Thing. 

Chesterton talks about a town where there’s a fence that’s been constructed across a road. A modern reformer comes into town and sees the fence and says "I don't see the use of this fence; let us clear it away." Hearing this, a wise old man says to him: "If you don't see the use of it, I 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." That then is the essence of Chesterton's fence. You shouldn't get rid of a fence until you've understood why it was there in the first place.

Chesterton then went on to explain that it’s good for reformers to remember that the fence did not magically come up from the ground one day. It wasn’t as if it was erected by some idiot in a fit of madness. Whoever built the fence did it because he felt it would serve a purpose. There must have been a reason. It’s possible that the reason may not be relevant anymore, but we need to understand the rationale – before deciding to do away with the fence.

If you’ve seen a leadership change in your organization, you have probably seen Chesterton’s fence. A new leader takes charge. Change becomes the dominant theme. Hardly a day passes without the new leader getting rid of the ‘old ways of doing things.’ Policies get changed. Strategies altered. Roles disbanded. And the new leader is on his way to putting his stamp on the organization. Change is good no doubt. But reckless change can sometimes cause more harm than good. If it’s not thought through, reform can turn into deform.

‘I don’t know why we have so many branch locations’, says the new leader as he goes about shutting down those offices. Might be the right thing to do. But good idea for him to pause, understand why those branches came into existence in the first place before deciding to do away with them. Shutting those offices might be the right action, sure. But the leader also needs to think through how they will service customers in those remote locations.

Being aware of Chesterton’s fence helps us in two ways. First, it ensures that before we take action, we have thought through the consequences, beyond the obvious. Often, we get convinced about the merits of our actions – and disregard consequences and possibilities someone else may have thought of. ‘I don’t understand why it’s there’ is not good enough reason to get rid of it. Understand why it was there, seek out answers, and then you’ll be better placed to decide whether it should be there. Or not.

The second benefit of keeping Chesterton’s Fence in your mind is it teaches you to respect your predecessors and their decisions. You may disagree with them, but remember, they weren’t stupid. Maybe times have changed, but there was a reason why they did what they did. Understand that.

Go ahead then. Change the world. And remember Chesterton’s fence.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Prakash Iyer

Iyer is an author, speaker and leadership coach , and former MD of Kimberly Clark Lever

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