Chesterton’s Fence vs. The Five Monkeys

Chesterton’s Fence is the idea that you should understand why something exists before you remove it:

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.”

G. K. Chesterton

Building a fence is hard work. Nobody’s doing it for the heck of it. There was a good reason to go to all that trouble. So you better understand it before you destroy it.

The Five Monkeys Experiment is often held up as a counterpoint to Chesterton’s Fence. It goes like this:

  1. Put five monkeys in a big cage with a ladder
  2. Hang some bananas dangling above the ladder
  3. When a monkey climbs the ladder to grab a banana, spray them all with cold water
  4. Repeat until the monkeys start preventing each other from climbing the ladder
  5. Remove one of the monkeys and swap it out with a new one
  6. Observe as the new one tries to climb the ladder and the other ones yank it back down over and over until it learns that’s just what happens when you climb the ladder.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until all of the monkeys have been replaced.
  8. Notice that even though none of them monkeys have ever been sprayed by cold water, they still prevent each other from climbing the ladder.

So the monkeys have no idea why it’s a no-no to climb the ladder. That’s just the way it’s always been.

The old joke that lots of companies are run that way.

So Chesterton’s Fence says that you shouldn’t change things unless you understand them. And the Five Monkeys Experiment says that you shouldn’t avoid changing things just because you can’t understand them. They’re at odds, yeah?

What to do, what to do?! The obvious answer is that you should find an easily reversible and low risk way to test what happens if you change things. But what’s an easily reversible way of removing a fence? Remove just a section? Build a gate and leave it open?

How about when the fence is a company policy?

If you have thoughts, email me.

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