Chesterton’s Fence


Lucas A. Meyer


April 2, 2022

Chesterton’s Fence is an extremely important concept, especially if you are joining a new team in a senior or in a leadership position.

The concept dates from around 1929. The original text is longer, but a concise version is: “Do not take a fence down if you don’t know why it was put up in the first place.”

New managers and senior resources frequently want to change a lot of things. We are, after all, hired because of our deep expertise and experience. It’s not uncommon for a senior, experienced person to think that what was done before them was “wrong” and that they could easily do what’s “right”.

The reality is that, most times, whomever did the previous version is an accomplished professional had to make lots of decisions under constrained resources. I find that it’s usually hubris from my side to think that I can easily understand and solve all those problems quicker and better than they did. Fences don’t sprout from the ground - there’s a reason why a specific fence was put up there in the first place.

I frequently learn a lot when trying to understand the reasons why the original decisions were made. Occasionally, the original solution can really be improved on, but after understanding why it was made in the first place I also learn of constraints I didn’t know. In many other cases, I learn of constraints that would actually create significant problems for the new idea I had, and that saves me and everyone else significant time.

When I was less experienced and less careful, I brought down plenty of fences unnecessarily, and was later surprised to find escaped sheep on the road and farmers yelling at me.

I also posted about other concepts, such as the XY Problem and Cunningham’s Law. I even keep a list of my favorite concepts!