Management Myth 28: I Can Standardize How Other People Work


Imposing a Standard on Someone Else’s Work Is Wrong
Except for safety or regulatory reasons, there is no reason to impose a standard on someone else’s work—especially if a manager does so.

When managers impose standards, they implicitly say, “I don’t trust you to do your jobs. Here. I will tell you how.” Would you want to do your job that way? I wouldn’t.

I don’t mind having deadlines. I don’t mind having structure of maximums or minimums, such as word counts for columns or sizes for data structures. I can live with constraints.

But when managers told me how to do my job, I didn’t live with that very well. I always thought of ways I could do it better. Always. And some of my managers didn’t appreciate those thoughts.

Standards Try to Prevent People from Thinking
Worse, many standards try to cover all of the potential problems in a process. The standard wants to prevent people from thinking. That’s how we got to big, honking binders of process.

Why do we hire people? To think and solve problems. Do we ever not want people to think? No. We want people to think. We want people to think hard. We want people to solve problems, whether it is with the process or the product.

We hired these people because we thought they were smart. They are. Let them show us how they apply their problem-solving skills to the project itself, not just the problem domain.

What If People Need Help?
If the people ask for help with standards, then you can provide local help to each team. And if the teams are part of a program where you have one business objective common to multiple projects, make sure the program understands the problem. Let the delegates to the program team solve the problem at the program level. If they need help, they will ask for it.

In my experience, organization-wide standards don’t help if management imposes them. After a while, the “way we do things here” becomes part of the culture, and you don’t need standards. People see useful things and they copy them from project to project.

But standards and standardizing, especially from management? Let the people solve problems. They are good at it. And if they aren’t, let them practice.

Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

User Comments

Madhava Verma Dantuluri's picture

All meaningful questions and the concerns being faced in the industry. Well driven article.

April 3, 2014 - 12:07am
Jim Miller's picture



Sorry but I strongly disagree, standards are extremely valuable to an organization.  There are hundreds of studies that support the need for standards.  The best and most popular is the practices and principals of Six Sigma.  As everyone knows Jack Walsh used documented well-structured standards to turn GE around.  There are thousands of examples to prove that standards are need.  Remember, SOX was pasted because there were no official accounting or financial standards!


The answer is not to do away with standards, remember this was attempted in the 80’s and it did not work then, but to create and maintain standards that add value.  When an organization implements a VALUE ADD PMO (the P stands for Portfolio, Program and Project Management) they can increase throughput upwards to 30%.  This can only be done by using documented standards.


Here is the real question, what is used to measure management performance?  It should be measurements against standards.  But in most organizations IT departments they do not utilize measurements or standards correctly.

April 3, 2014 - 12:51pm
Johanna Rothman's picture

Hi Jim,


It depends on what the standards are. If you try to shoehorn everyone into one kind of approach to project management, I don't see how you succeed--unless you have all the same projects. If you use GE as an example, they failed at that for their software organizations. Yes, they succeeded for manufacturing. Software development is not the same as manufacturing.

Software projects are about learning. Our projects include innovation. If you have a project without innovation, of course, standardize it. Maybe it doesn't even need to be done by software people.

But, if you want innovation, I don't see how you get to standardization. And, in this example, which is what I see much of in my work with organizations, I don't see why any group of managers would impose their solution to a problem on the people doing the work.

The people doing the work should develop the solution to the problem.

I like your question a lot: What is used to measure management performance? I don't agree with your answer (I bet you are not surprised!). The world is too volatile to measure against standards. I'm all about measuring against outcomes.

April 3, 2014 - 2:07pm
Joe Astolfi's picture

+1!  Thank you Johanna.  You are spot on again.  Standardization gives management an illusion of control and makes them feel better.  Unfortunately, it is just that - an illusion.  Let's focus less on following rules and processes and more on innovating to achieve the desired outcomes.  

April 4, 2014 - 7:54am
Johanna Rothman's picture

Joe, thanks so much. Defining outcomes is difficult. It is necessary, but difficult.

It is different than management by objectives, also. No wonder our managers want to manage with standards!

April 4, 2014 - 10:29am

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