Flexible Standardization

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As you know, I’m an enormous advocate of encouraging people to be creative and try new approaches (hence my several workshops on creativity, innovation and exponential organizations). On the other hand, I specialize on build solid, yet flexible, policies to guide people’s behaviors and group interactions. (Indeed, my proudest accomplishment on Capitol Hill was drafted a piece of legislation proposing a change in how the federal government should help States experiment with human service programs to provide quality services while saving taxpayers money. It’s the balance that’s key, as this anecdote from Decker’s Communicate to Influence demonstrates.

In 1904, the Great Fire of Baltimore leveled most of central Baltimore. It burned for two days and destroyed 1500 buildings. Unfortunately, the tragedy could have been avoided. Firefights were on hand from Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York – but were unable to connect their firehouses to the Baltimore hydrants, because each hydrant type is different. Unable to fit their hoses to the hydrants, they stood by and watched the city burn. Lesson; standardize equipment and processes!

In a world of growing divergence in people’s cultures, needs, lifestyles, etc., it’s more important than ever to have standardized, yet flexible, procedures and systems. In the earlier days of computers and cellphones, each manufacturer created its own charger, which meant if a group of people met and used different brands, often one could not borrow another’s chargers. This happened so often that inventors began inventing systems that would allow usability across brands.

From a management approach, the same thing is true: the more variables that you need to take into account, the greater the difficulty in holding people accountable. With standardized, yet flexible systems, it’s easier to relate different results to differences in capabilities and effort.

Take a look at your systems: can they be standardized to a greater extent yet offer the users enough flexibility that they meet their needs? What’s your experience in this area? Let us know!