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Standards as Accelerant

An animated GIF of Willy Wonka stating 'Sorry, rules of the house.'

When debating IT governance structures, people make lots of claims. One is that decentralized governance “maximizes” team freedom. Or, specifically:

“Increased standardization decreases the freedom for teams and people to innovate.”

As I argue in my piece on the usefulness of polarity maps, we shouldn’t treat IT governance as a false dichotomy or “centralized versus decentralized”. There is a spectrum of implementations that can blend positive aspects from both sides. Standards and guidelines tactics can help focus and direct work in productive directions when used correctly.

Decision Fatigue Happens When Too Many Decisions Are Delegated To The Lowest Level

Decision paralysis is when an individual or group has difficulty taking action because the solution space is too large (also called “analysis paralysis”). Decision fatigue, or when the mind becomes exhausted after a sustained period of decision making, often follows.

Many became acutely aware of decision fatigue during the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly, even trivial activities like opening doors and touching elevator buttons were a puzzle. Not only had the number of decisions skyrocketed, but the heavier impact that those decisions carried (the possibility of illness or death) created outsized effects: stress, loss of energy, and lowered mental capacity.

Worse, attempting to make decisions on rapidly shifting data impedes speed and confidence. It is reasonable that pandemic guidelines would change to reflect new information. However, the early lack of a single, centralized message and delegation to local authorities (many of whom were ill-equipped to be making epidemiolocal judgments) created a cacophony of competing, sometimes contradictory, guidance.

Similar conditions exist in IT environments where all decision-making authority has been deferred to individuals or small teams. It is challenging to “be innovative” under such circumstances. Encouraging folks to “just make better decisions” will not create the desired outcomes.

Standards Free Focus For What Matters

Clear, concise standards serve as guide rails that steer limited bandwidth toward productive activity. Rather than debating how to express pagination for the thousandth time, teams can adopt a pre-existing company style, thus diverting their energy toward creating unique business value. Instead of wrestling with the decisions involved in understanding and coding around another bespoke datetime format, internal API producers could accelerate delivery by uniformly adopting a widely known standard, like ISO 8601.

Like all implements in the governance toolkit, standards, guidelines, and rules can be misused. However, when applied appropriately, clear policy and regulation can reduce decision fatigue and free teams’ time and energy for more meaningful work.