Don’t Change What You Don’t Yet Understand

A controversial rule for those making change

In our on-boarding process at NOBL, we have one rule that’s been controversial:

Spend your first 90 days learning how and why we do things before trying to make improvements.

Yes we tell our new folks, the same whip-smart folks we went to great lengths to find and attract, to sit on their hands … for a time.

Hence the controversy.

This policy was inspired by The Parable of Chesterton’s Fence.

From G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. 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.”

“This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”

Put simply, don’t change what you don’t yet understand.

We the smart people, we the far-traveled and well-read, we don’t fear change, we embrace change–sometimes before we understand the systems we are changing.

Cue the avalanche of unintended and unforeseen consequences.

At work, we often want to change things simply because we are more comfortable with how we’ve done things before.

We did it differently at my last company. We used a different tool at my last company. We sold a different service at my last company. My last company. My last company.

My last company was comfortable.

We ask our new folks to wait out their discomfort before making change.



While I believe this policy is actually the right thing to do, and while I am chuffed to be the sort of man who quotes esoteric parables (and I only went to a state university!), the time limit of this policy is as important as the intent of the policy.

If after 90 days, their ideas for improvement fall on deaf ears then we are no longer wise.

Not wisened, just frozen.

We ask that they wait, they ask that we then listen.

It’s a fair bargain only if both sides keep their promise.

The truth is, at least for NOBL, that we have plenty to improve.

We’ve surely also cloned what was comfortable.

Our Newsletter
Don’t Change What You Don’t Yet Understand
Search NOBL