Chesterton’s Fence

Or, decision-making for new hires

Hello, and welcome to a new edition of Expander. I’m Abhishek, and each week I share practical ideas on doing product, measuring what matters, working with people, and growing a business. Send me your questions and in return, I’ll humbly offer BS-free actionable advice. 🤜🤛

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Today, let’s talk about business decision-making. More precisely, a crucial step before the actual decision-making that most of us tend to ignore (especially new hires). For that, let me start with the story of the “eliminate sparrows campaign” in late 1950s China.

It was suspected that a single sparrow was consuming upto four pounds of grain a year. Mao Zedong would have none of it! During the (ironical) Great Leap Forward, Mao’s government declared that birds, especially sparrows, are “public animals of capitalism”. 

As part of the campaign, sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, and chicks were killed. People hit noisy pots and pans to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests and drop dead from exhaustion. These mass attacks severely depleted the sparrow population thereby pushing it near extinction.

But, instead of seeing an increase in rice yields, the country rather saw a decrease. It was found that sparrows ate numerous insects and pests as well. They simply charged a fee for that. But the extermination of sparrows upset the ecological balance. With no sparrows around, the locust population ballooned and destroyed crops.

The Chinese government later had to resort to importing 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to replenish their population. Keep this in mind before you plan to eradicate all mosquitoes from the face of the earth.

Now, how is it related to business decisions? Let’s get to that. You see, a core component of making good decisions is understanding the rationale behind previous decisions that were already made by the team. If we don’t understand “why” a certain decision was taken and “how” we got here, we run the risk of making things much worse. This is true especially for new hires.

New hires (particularly the amateur ones), eager to make an immediate difference, start looking for ways to “take actionable measures” and “upgrade the process” to “double the productivity” of the team.

Let’s take the case of office hierarchy. They figure out soon that the top-down management and overall hierarchy of the company is an imperfect system. It places additional stress on those at the bottom. As the company grows, it would eventually lead to abuse of power and manipulative company politics. Hierarchical systems also make it hard for good ideas from those at the bottom to be heard.

Therefore, they suggest what we need is a flat hierarchy — no managers, no bosses, no politics. Having just figured out how to make the company 10x better, not to mention in their first week itself, they give themselves a pat in the back while sipping coffee.

However, despite the numerous problems inherent in hierarchical structures, doing away with them completely signifies a sheer lack of awareness of the reasons why they were practised in the first place. In other words, it revelas the naïveté of the employee.

A manager makes their direct reports accountable. During times of stress, people naturally tend to look to leaders for direction. And even if there’s no formal hierarchy, people will often form an invisible one — which is blurry, unclear, far more complex to navigate, and usually rewards the most charismatic (or the most loud) instead of the most qualified.

There are hierarchy-free and healthy companies out there, but it would be utterly foolish to install that structure without addressing why hierarchies exist in the first place. Because, simply removing hierarchies does not necessarily lead to a fairer, more productive system.

This brings us to the core concept of today’s post: Chesterton’s Fence, as described by writer philosopher G. K. Chesterton himself:

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 gaily 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.”

In other words, unless we know the rationale behind a decision, we have no right to change it.

When we join a company, it is safe to assume that we are working with smart folks (otherwise, what’s the point) — folks who didn’t build a feature, or put a system in place, or made a business decision in their sleep or in a fit of madness. They put a good deal of thought, carefully planned things out, and had reasons why something would be good for the company. Until we establish that reason, we have no business taking an axe to them.

The second rule for a new hire is: do no harm. We shouldn’t start suggesting let’s do this, let’s do that right after we join a company. Other people have spent years on things we’ve merely spent hours on. It would be hubris to assume we know better than them.

Yes, doing things the way they’ve always been done means getting the same results we’ve always got. There’s certainly nothing progressive about being resistant to change. Some things do become out of date and redundant with time.

Every so often, an outside perspective is ideal for shaking things up and finding new ways, yes. Even so, unless we know why someone made a decision, we can’t safely change it or conclude that they were wrong. And this brings me to the first rule: observe and learn.

The first step to modifying an aspect of a system is to understand it. We should observe it in full, note how it interconnects with other aspects, including ones that might not be obvious. We should learn how it works, figure out its second-order effects, and instead of advising, “We should do this,” we should ask, “Have we tried this?” Unless we have done the work required to hold an opinion, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.

If you’ve seen a peacock, you must know that a peacock’s tail is not about efficiency. In fact, its whole value lies in its inefficiency. It signals a bird is healthy enough to waste energy growing it and has the strength to carry it around. Peahens use the quality of the tails to decide which mates are likely to have the best genes.

But say tomorrow, a “reformer” intervenes and decides that the system needs to be optimised. They somehow pick a peacock and give it a “functional” tail. It would be more energy efficient and practical, yes, but it would also ensure that the peacock would die a virgin.

A peacock’s tail has reasons for its existence, so has a sparrow, and the numerous decisions and systems in a company. The reasons might be different from ours, but they are important nonetheless. We shouldn’t intervene before we understand them. Something new hires should keep in mind.


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Do you agree with what I said, or do you think otherwise? Send me counters, comments, questions, and other ways to help out a peacock. 🙌

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Until next week,
Abhishek 👋


P.S. I also write The Sunday Wisdom, a weekly newsletter that challenges the norms and learned beliefs about how the world works. Delivered every Sunday at 6PM IST.