Conventional wisdom tells us that standards are a good thing. They are based on best practices and provide guidance to help people do their jobs well. They are so widely accepted that their worth almost goes without saying. As with most things that go without saying, though, standards are not always what they are built up to be. In spite of the plethora of standards in the software industry, we still struggle to achieve successful projects. Even in organizations that are standard-centric, projects end up in challenged (or worse) states.
Let's explore what it is that constitutes a standard. More importantly, what makes a standard worth following?
Types of Standards
When we talk about standards, we may mean one of two different thing: industry standard, and organization standards.
Industry standards are usually compiled by a recognized authority (such as IEEE) and represent the wisdom and experience of many people from many types of organizations. In most cases, a committee is formed to develop, document, seek input from the community. Ultimately the standard is finalized. Though the inputs to these standards come from real life experience in real organizations, the resulting final standard is just the opposite. It represents something that no organization has actually implemented in its entirety.
So, what are we to make of industry standards? Each is a compendium of things that an organization should consider adopting because those things have worked for certain organizations under certain circumstances. Who knows? Some of them just might work for you!
Organization standards are a completely different thing. They represent the judgment that a specific organization under its peculiar circumstances would be best served by adopting the identified things. Note that "organization" may mean a person, work-group, project team, department, division, or entire corporate entity.
If that judgment is well reasoned and rational, then the organization standard will be worth following. Who is in the position to make that judgment, though? How do they reach their conclusions? A troubling question indeed!
Following Industry Standards
Many managers have decreed that, "Thou shalt follow industry standard XYZ.” This is almost always an unfortunate mistake that (at best) causes inefficiency, and (at worst) wreaks havoc.
Because industry standards represent what no one does, they must be interpreted and adapted to fit the unique situations and needs of the organization at hand. In other words, one must apply critical thinking and reason, learning from the industry standard. Using it as a touchstone as an organization standard is something that is crafted.
Crafting an Organization Standard
This is something that no individual can do (unless that person is crafting a standard for him- or herself alone to follow). The best way to create an organization standard is to engage a sampling of the individuals who are active in the work to which it would apply. This group should operate as a short-term team, with the specific job of crafting the organization standard.
Naturally, we should expect that these people look to the guidance provided by industry standards. They should also capitalize on their own experiences and wisdom, and that of their colleagues, as well. With careful consideration of input from many sources in the organization, this team can create a draft standard that can be tried out on a variety of projects. Naturally, as it is put into practice, the flaws and inefficiencies in this draft standard will be exposed and must be addressed before it is adopted as "the way we do business". Only then will it be a standard that is worth following.
Ensure that it Continues to be Worth Following
Finally, since our organizations do not remain static, our standards must be maintained over time. Every project provides an opportunity to critique how the standard is faring in the face of the many changes the organization is experiencing. Each project where a standard is a source of concern teaches us something about how we can make it better.
After expending the effort to craft an organization standard, it is critical that we not view it as being chiseled into stone. Our standards must remain as flexible and adaptive as the organization that they serve; this is the only way to ensure that they continue to be standards that are worth following.