Don’t Fence Me In (Book Review)

Shift happens. We are flooded with information and the world is changing at an ever-growing pace. Yet our education systems, our companies and our society are very slow to adapt. That is because we have built too many fences.

If you put fences around people, you will get sheep.
– William L. McKnight

I Used to be a Sheep

Last week Cole Porter’s classic ‘Don’t Fence Me In‘ came to life as Jef Staes was making a case against the mindset of sheep herding in our society. His latest book ‘Ik was een schaap‘ (only available in Dutch) translates as ‘I Used to be a Sheep’. It’s a manifesto against sheep herding in education, organizations and society. (Note: Jef is a guest author on this blog and his thoughts on how organizations can find a new balance are described in his Switch 3D article and in his Sheep Drama article – an early version of his new book if you will.)

Sheep herding is something we inherit from the Industrial Revolution. That is when work got organized: people came together in the same physical environment and labor got split up into its different components.

The way we run our companies and projects today was inspired by the logic of a 120 years old Scientific Management. Command-and-control was the slogan that would create economic growth. And it did. Without any doubt, our economy, our society and our well-being would not have progressed to the current levels of prosperity without compliance and obedience.

In fact, the compliance to strict rules and procedures was the shortest path to productivity. Without any doubt, carrot-and-stick leadership is the best way to get things done in a predictable economy based on scarcity and competition.


In an earlier article I explained how Jef challenged me to rethink the use of SMART goals. We came to the awkward conclusion that rather than fueling or accelerating their performance, SMART goals are numbing very bit of initiative and creativity out of people. Rather than empowering people, with SMART goals I am putting a fence around them. I’m domesticating them with function descriptions and herding them within the fences of the status quo. As you can guess: that fence an illusion of security that makes people stop thinking.

But now a shift is happening: the amount of information is overwhelming and most people, teams and companies are paralyzed by the flood of information. The result for SMART corporate decision-making is painstaking: as a central commander you need to process even more information faster. No matter how hard you try, you will always be too late in this new information-driven economy.

Turns out that when we have the courage to think about the consequences for education, organizations and society, that we bump into very radical ideas. That is because the difference between ‘how we are organized’ and ‘what we are up against’ is too big. Jef concludes that there are three radical changes we should be tackling in order to become future-proof: three fences to get rid of.

Fence #1: Degrees

First, we need to deal with the fact that our education system is shaped according to the factories of 120 years ago. Education is functionally organized and we are educating people like a factory is producing batches. Everybody needs to comply to the same standards and we eradicate all deviations. Next, education delivers standardized ‘human’ (or whatever is left of that) resources.

In that sense, a degree is a piece of paper that certifies that all creativity and deviation has been educated out of you. Sir Ken Robinson refers to this as the crisis of human resources. Robinson claims our education has dislocated us from our natural talents. Most talents are like real natural resources: they are buried deep. And education as we know it is designed to flatten out the individuality of our talent.

Education needs a revolution because more and more it becomes clear that we are preparing our children for the world of tomorrow with an education system that is shaped according to what the world looked like yesterday. Degrees do not represent the talent or the passion that is inside of us, but still we trick ourselves into believing that degrees are meaningful. Those days are over.

Fence #2: Function Descriptions

The next thing you know is that you get hired because your degree matches a function description. This is a second fence and this one is based on the premise that all work can be standardized and that functions are the best way to make use of people’s talents in an organizational setting.

Here is how that typically goes when it is time for a performance appraisal:

  • Let’s not waste any time on the stuff that went well;
  • Let’s focus on your weaknesses – although that’s not where your strengths are;
  • Let’s make a plan on how you can bridge that gap;
  • You are subscribed for that training – and of course you do average;

Worst of all: companies invest tons of money in order to automate this mechanism and then call it ‘learning solution’ or ‘learning management systems’. Let’s be honest: learning has nothing to do with it.

If we want to cope with the challenges of today’s economy we need roles instead of functions. Roles that are tied together in a social architecture ensure that the right talents are exposed to the challenges at hand.

Fence #3: Retirement

Worst of all: after a lifetime of conformity and working on your weaknesses, society decides that you can be scrap-heaped. Your talents and your passions no longer mean anything to society because you are no longer performing in that function. This is the third fence.

Although older workers can be bursting with talent and have the willingness to share and learn, our society is shaping different expectations. Retirement happens because people have become too expensive and dispensable. There are dispensable because we have been focusing on their weaknesses and all that time we could have developed their talents.

If Not a Fence, Then What?

Building consciousness for the fences that we let ourselves herd into is a first step to prepare us for the world as it is today. Jef’s new book is a wake-up call that will make us look into a new direction. Jef concludes that:

  • Schools of tomorrow become meeting places where learning is based on what you can get out of people – not on what you can put in.
  • Career development is not longer based on functions but on roles and social validation.
  • The retirement fence can only be abandoned when we abandon degrees and functions.

Stuff to think about!

  • Gail Severini

    Fantastic!  I have two teenagers and I shudder to think how they are “being educated”!  We spend a lot of time teaching them how to think but it is like teaching them to swim upstream. 

    Then I go to work where employees operate like robots at their desks then become animated at lunch!

    This is good work.  Bravo. Gail