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Chesterton's Fence Is the Secret to Not Making Stupid

Decisions. As Jeff Bezos notes, experimental failure is useful. Plain old screw-ups are not. Here's how to tell the difference in advance.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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There are decisions that don't work out, and then there are straight-up stupid decisions. What's the difference? 

As Jeff Bezos has pointed out, when you try something new and bold that ultimately fails, that's experimental failure, and "that's the kind of failure you should be happy with." If you don't sometimes make choices in the face of imperfect or incomplete information, you are never going to move your business, or your life, forward. 

Decisions you make when it is impossible to know key information beforehand are useful experiments. But that's very different from decisions you make where the information needed to avoid disaster is out there and you just failed to utilize it. Bezos labels this second type of bad call operational failures. The rest of us mostly just think of them as dumb decisions. 

How do you distinguish the two types of decisions and make sure you're not proceeding with what you think is a brilliant new idea, when really what you've got is a rehashing of someone else's bombed experiment? Just remember Chesterton's fence. 

An unexpected source of stupidity-fighting wisdom 

Who was Chesterton, and why is his fence so important? At first glance, it's unlikely many modern entrepreneurs would pick up English philosopher G.K. Chesterton's most famous book, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, if they saw it at their local bookstore. Its topic seems like a valid but niche interest. But embedded in the book is a useful anecdote warning against hasty and ill-considered change that remains resonant nearly 100 years after the book was published.  

It goes something like this: Imagine that you are walking through the countryside near your home one day (as philosophers are wont to do) and come across a rickety old fence dividing a couple of pastures full of sheep and cows. "It seems pretty useless and it's definitely not adding anything aesthetically to the landscape, so why don't I just tear it down?" you think. 

The only problem is that within a couple of months of the fence's destruction, all the cows are suddenly looking dangerously skinny. What went wrong? Turns out that the fence, ugly and old though it might have been, was there to keep the sheep away from the cows. Sheep crop grass closer to the ground than cows, so if you mix the two, the sheep eat everything and the cows go hungry. Whoops, it turns out you need to repent your dumb decision and build another fence. 

All of which might be fascinating for farmers, but why is this anecdote relevant to entrepreneurs? Because, as Big Think explained in an article highlighting Chesterton's fence recently, the story encapsulates a principle that can save just about all of us from making any number of dumb, non-agricultural decisions. 

"Until you know what a thing does and until you can be absolutely sure you can live without it, you should leave it be," is the article's summary of the basic takeaway of Chesterton's fence. This applies to animal husbandry, but it is just as valid in nearly every other area of life too, including business. 

As an example, Big Think offers this:

Imagine that a successful startup is growing, and so they hire a chief financial officer to get their ducks in a row. The new CFO, keen to show intent, finds some cuts to make and costs to save. And so they get rid of the free soda and snacks in the office. It's a job well done. That's $10,000 saved. But suddenly, the company feels very different. The employees who made the startup successful start to mutter and gripe. "Things are too corporate now," they say, and "it's not like it was." So, an exodus happens. 

This hypothetical startup's espresso machine and quinoa bar are the equivalent of the half-rotted fence between the pastures. They may appear useless or even detrimental to the overall project of making money or raising beef at first glance -- but only until you dig deeper into the reasoning behind them. 

Move fast(ish). Don't break things 

In the startup world, innovation and speed are rightfully praised. As Bezos highlights, a willingness to just give things a shot even though they might not work out, or when you don't have all the data you'd like, is essential for progress. But as some of the wilder missteps of the move-fast-and-break-things ethos amply illustrate, it is quite possible to take this principle too far. 

Sure, try bold new things. There's no such thing as the perfect time or perfect information. But as Chesterton's fence reminds us, do this only once you actually understand why the old things were designed the way they were, and what the various parts of the system are intended to accomplish. 

Is this principle a little bit conservative and unsexy, just as you'd expect from a guy famous for writing a book subtitled "Why I Am Catholic"? Sure, but it's the kind of common sense conservatism that is a useful check on the kind of hasty, utopian, or overly optimistic plans that tend to lead to straight-up dumb decisions. 

Experimental failure is great -- just make sure before you try something "new" that you're not actually repeating someone else's failed experiment. Keeping Chesterton's fence in mind will help you avoid that fate. 

Photo Credit: Getty Images.

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