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Standards, Consensus, and the 80/20 Rule

A standards geek knows that “consensus is general agreement—not necessarily unanimity.” Recently, a NEMA member commented publicly on standards development, collaboration, and the “80/20 rule,” which generally states that: 80% of effects are generated by 20% of causes, or, conversely, that 20% of effects are generated by 80% of causes.

For standards development, the NEMA member observed that “…an inordinate amount of time goes into what to do with that rarely occurring 20%...” The NEMA member continued, saying that “Our standards definition process is too cumbersome because it attempts to do everything by consensus and encompass everything at once.”

Consensus-based processes are inherently cumbersome; however, a better alternative is to rely on that portion of consensus identified as “not necessarily unanimity.” Standards geeks also know that standards are:

  • Developed by those who show up with a shovel to do the hard work—not necessarily those who choose to limit their participation to attendance and discussion;
  • Completed by those who keep their eyes on the prize, recognizing that “done” is that point where necessary and sufficient elements are addressed and generally accepted; and
  • Adopted when a majority is in agreement, often well before the remaining 20% of corner cases (real or imagined) is identified, explored endlessly, addressed, and accepted unanimously.

Effective standards developing organizations (SDOs) strike a necessary balance where the 80% is addressed in the standard, a majority agrees, and the marketplace is ready to implement. At one point, this standards geek was asked whether or not I wanted a standard in development to be “perfect.” My response was, and remains “no, Not perfect—complete, correct, and done is sufficient.” Any SDO can proudly apply that benchmark to standards development.

Posted 07-22-2010 9:15 PM by Johnson, Jean
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