Taking down fences

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When you live on a horse farm … even if it is only a hobby – there is always plenty of work to be done. One of those is taking care of the fences which keep our horses in their fields. When my parents inherited the land from my grandmother – it came with plenty of fields for horses and miles of barbed wire fences. Our horses have been kept behind those for years and as it isn’t the safest way to keep your horses in, we have started to replace them by more horse worthy (electric band) fences.

The first big fields we changed around we had done by others, very little hassle for us, and our budget wouldn’t allow us to do that for all the fences. So since then we have started to do it ourselves. Now to be fair my father does most of that work, and in the process we discovered that though he is much better at taking the wire of the poles and pulling out the poles, I seem to have a knack for rolling up the barbed wire into neat rolls that are easily transported to the dump. A painful process, as it is almost impossible to do this without hurting yourself.

So today – having postponed this job most of the winter my father and I went out to remove some of the last barbed wire fences on our property. In between rolling up the barbed wire, as I took rolls from one to the other side or as I tied them together – I reflected on how taking down a fence is a metaphor for what we do when we make changes in organisations.

Our goal is not to take down the fence we have, it is to create a new, safer fence – which will keep our horses in and poses minimal risk to them . Yet the first thing to do is to dismantle something old. And as it is with change in an organisation it is so easy to just see that fence as something bad – it is painful, boring and one really wonders who ever came up with the concept of barbed wire. When I slow down, however, I realise that the fences I am taking down have been here for about 40 years. I know the man who built them, he is in fact still our neighbour, and if I dislike taking them down, think about how much work it was for him to build them. I may not think them safe enough for my horses now, but 5 generations of our breeding have grown up between these fences, they have been kept in – as have the horses that preceded them.

In organisations, the silos, hierarchies, fiefdoms, processes and cultures we attempt to change, may not serve our future and we do well to remember how well they have served us in the past – they got us here. It is difficult to hold both the reality that change is needed and that what we have now has worked for us till now. In some ways we even change to keep something constant. My grandparents wanted their horses safe 40 years ago and we still do – it is just that we have a different understanding of what is a safe fence. The same goes for strategies and direction of companies.

It is also helpful to remember in change that taking down the old is going to be painful – for someone… you can try and avoid the pain that comes with it, by just throwing the barbed wire in a pile as my father has done before – however there comes a point when someone will need to deal with it – latest when you get to the dump and need to manoeuvre up the small stairs for the metal container… get stuck in the wire covered stairs, behind the handles, everywhere basically. It may seem nice to push the pain down the line, if you’re willing to partake in the process it may in the end be less painful for all.

And finally counter intuitive as it may seem, the best way to work with barbed wire is without gloves, it will get stuck to your gloves anyway, so better to pay attention to the rolling of the wire only, and to carefully place your hands … keeping your eyes open, being conscious of what you do, and moving mindfully is better protection than any padding could be… whether you are rolling up barbed wire or changing an organisation.

3 Responses to Taking down fences

  1. Paul Byrne says:

    Really lovely piece. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hi, Really wonderful article.
    I had always wondered why we newbees always attempt to change the things/systems that worked successfully for many years. Your analogy has clarified to me that it is just that we have a different understanding of what we see good for our future. The change is always painful/disliked by someone and once noticing that behaviour , it should be taken care with utmost care, sympathy and mindfulness.

    Thanks again for sharing your views , and I always liked to read them.

    • Thanks Muhammad, and yes we may have a different understanding of what is good for the future and it is helpful to listen to those who went before us – to see what they envisioned for the future and how that might still make sense – that way even if we decide to change, we can do it while still honouring that which came before…

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