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The Accidental Standard

, 19 Mar 2014
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The accidental standard is a pervasive issue in software development circles. As groups and products grow in size and complexity, it's common for people to use their best judgment when making decisions. This trust is a vital olive branch in team building and group dynamics. But as time marches on, a
The accidental standard is a pervasive issue in software development circles. As groups and products grow in size and complexity, it's common for people to use their best judgment when making decisions. This trust is a vital olive branch in team building and group dynamics. But as time marches on, accidental standards are created. An accidental standard is a method, process, or expectation set without explicit recognition by those involved. They can range from an unexpectedly lax dress code to reckless, high risk changes in critical environments that harken back to the lawless days of the wild west. In these situations no one consciously wanted, agreed, or accepted these methods and outcomes. They simply happened as a natural evolution of time and space in an attempt to solve emerging needs and problems. Most companies can absorb varying amounts of risk, but maintaining a healthy balance is key. In business, accidental standards cannot be avoided, but they can be managed.

Accidental standards can fall on either side of the positive/negative spectrum. Do not attempt to eliminate accidental standards as this can have unfavorable consequences. Attempting to control each decision and direction are traits of a micro-manager. It can be difficult to win over other team members with this approach. Accidental standards are a part of decision making. Every decision in life is either an implicit (unrecognized), or explicit (cognitively acknowledged) agreement. There is no in-between. This is similar to the concept "saying yes to one thing means saying no to another."

The good news is managing accidental standards is not difficult, but does require persistence and follow-through. Addressing accidental standards requires a two pronged approach. The first is on a simple ad-hoc basis. When someone recognizes a concern, they can bring it to the table immediately or schedule a meeting to discuss. The second approach is to invest in a recurring review/discussion cycle. This does not need to be a separate meeting or even a formal discussion. It can be included in an existing agenda or can be part of a cyclical fact finding mission. Be mindful to keep these conversations to a minimum and be aware that excessive focus can lead to frustration and inattentional blindness. The purpose for the second approach is to keep accidental standards in the frame of conversation for proper oversight.

While discussing accidental standards, encourage everyone to participate. It's important to communicate that a lack of commentary results in complicit acceptance. This is how accidental standards find their footing. Additionally, during these discussions discourage all attempts to point or assign blame. This is an unproductive activity which will ensure a negative outcome. Encourage others not only to discuss new topics, but also to revisit previous decisions if new concerns have arisen. If any decisions or conclusions are made, set a revisit/expiration date. This is an important key to successfully managing expectations and ensuring that those decisions don't create new accidental standards.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Zac Gery

United States United States
Software Developer, Mentor, Architect and UX/UI craftsman. Also, a psychology nut that loves curling.
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QuestionYou should also mention... Pinmemberlespauled20-Mar-14 10:04 

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