/ Designing Tech

Baselines, not Standards

In the IT industry, the word “standard” is loved and cherished. It is within easy reach in our toolbox, it fits snugly in our hand, and we use it on a daily basis, wielding it like a sword in both offense and defense. Our standards are the body and composition of everything we have researched, discovered and decided is good. But it is a dangerous word, however, because it does not mean what we hope it means.

We discuss Standards all the time, like they are the holy grail of solutions—if only “they” would conform to our standard! Standards have a time and place, perhaps in an industry that doesn't change quite so frequently.

Imagine if the metric measurement standard changed the definition of how long a meter is every year. It wouldn't be much of a standard. Yet we persist in using this word in the technology industry with hopes that it will carry the same weight as it does in the general world.

On some level, based on our usage, the word standard could probably be replaced with “My Way.” It is a form of chest thumping and assertion of authority. The statement, “Sorry, your servers do not meet the standard,” perhaps may be better stated as, “sorry, your servers are not built the way I like to see them built.”

The biggest problem with the word “standard” in Enterprise IT is that it comes with a disposition of inflexibility, and this inflexibility damages relationships. The word is a very easy scapegoat when a customer comes to us with a difficult need: We have standardized on brown shingles. So… sorry, every house we build must have brown shingles. We have built all of the other houses to this standard, and we need to keep them the same.

The sword of standard wielded in this statement feels extremely arbitrary to the outside. There may be very valid reasons for having it—perhaps there is a great discount on the brown shingles, and using something else would cost more. Or perhaps the color itself somehow has extra qualities in the environment of these houses.

We put up roadblocks, talk about standards, and make the customer's life difficult, when in reality they are just trying to get their needs communicated. We have failed them at this point, because they cannot comprehend why we are arguing over shingles. They don't care about shingles, standards, or anything else we bring up, they just want a new house for their grandmother

Whatever the case, with this simple statement of standards, we feel it is no longer our fault—it is just the standard. We try to cast ourselves as the victim right alongside the customer. The question is, do you think the customer believes us, let alone cares?

There are places where standards are appropriate, but in most cases, perhaps a better word we could use to avoid the conflict and help us to empathize with the customer's needs is: Baseline. When this simple change is made to the organization's vernacular, it has an immediate change to the approach people take in understanding each other.

A Standard is inflexible and focuses inwardly on our needs, not those of the customer. Either you are meeting the Standard, or you are failing to meet the Standard, and there is no room for conversation. A Baseline, however, is something you compare against. How close are you to the Baseline? Do you need to diverge? Let’s discuss the total cost impact of that divergence and see how we can make it work. Suddenly, we are in a world where our own processes is focused on our customers and helps them, instead of hindering them.

This is how we change the conversation from a hand wringing, “may I please do this thing?” relationship to a more beneficial, “I have this thing, could you help me figure out how it could work?”

Brandon Gillespie

Brandon Gillespie

Brandon loves Tech and has a breadth of experience including hands-on Implementation and Leadership Roles across many companies including small startups, enterprises, and the USAF.

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