Standards, Consensus, and the 80/20 Rule

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.

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