Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Standards Committee Hell

I haven't been on a lot of standards committees, but each one has defined a major era in my life. I have spent countless hours in standards committees. That's because a standards committee requires hundreds of hours of reading emails, discussing minutiae (sometimes the meaning of "*", other times the placement of commas). The one universal in standards creation is that nearly everyone comes to the work with a preconceived idea of what the outcome should be, long before hearing (but not listening to) the brilliant and necessary ideas of fellow members of the committee. Most of these standards-progressing people are so sure that their sky is the truest blue that they hardly recognize the need to give passing attention to what others have to say.

In one committee I was on, the alpha geek appeared the first day with a 30-page document in hand, put it on the table, and said: "There. It's done. We can all go home now." He was smiling, but it wasn't a "ha ha" smile, it was a "gotcha" smile. That committee lasted over two years, two long, painful years in which we never quite climbed out of the chasm that we were thrown into on that first day. Over that two-year period we chipped away at the original document, transformed a few of its more arcane paragraphs into something almost readable, and eventually presented the world with a one hundred page document that was even worse than what we had started with. Thus is the way of standards.
"...it is so perfect in fact that the underlying model can be applied to any - absolutely any - technology in the universe."
A particular downfall of standards committees is what I will call "the perfect model." I can only describe it with an analogy. Let's say that you are designing a car (by committee, of course), and one member of the group is an engineer with a particular passion for motors. In fact, he (yes, so far I've only run into "he's" of this nature) has this dream of the perfect internal combustion engine. Existing engines have made too many compromises -- for efficiency and economy and whatever other corners manufacturers have desired to cut. But now there is the opportunity to create the standard, the standard that everyone will follow and that will make every internal combustion engine the perfect, beautiful engine. The person (let's call him PersonB, reserving PersonA for oneself, or perhaps the chair of the committee, or, depending on the standards body, for the founder of the standards body and inspiration for all things technological) has developed a new four-stroke engine, which he modestly names with an acronym that includes his name. We'll call this the FE (famous engineer) 4x2 engine. The theory of the FE4x2 is as finely honed as the tolerances between the pistons and their housing; it is so perfect in fact that the underlying model can be applied to any - absolutely any - technology in the universe. Because of the near-divine nature of this model, the use of common terminology cannot describe its powers. Perhaps it would be preferable to not name the model and its features at all, leaving it, like Yahweh, to be alluded to but never spoken. However, standards bodies must describe their standards in documents, and even sell these to potential creators of the standard product, so names for the model and its components must be chosen. To inspire in all the importance of the model, terms are chosen to be as devoid of meaning as possible, yet so complex that they produce awe in the reader. Note that confusion is often mistaken for awe by the uneducated.

 Our committee now has described the perfect engine using the universal model, but the standards organization survives on hawking specifications to enterprising souls who will actually create and attempt to sell products that can be certified by the August Authoritative Standards Organization. This means that the thing the standard describes has to be packaged for use. Because the model is perfect, the package surely cannot be mundane. You don't put this engine in something resembling a Sears and Roebuck toaster oven. No, the package must have class, style, and a certain difficulty of use that makes the owner of the final product really think hard about what each knob is for. In fact, it would be ideal if every user would need to attend a series of seminars on the workings of this Perfect Thing. There's a good market for consultants to run these seminars, especially those members of the community who haven't got the skill to actually manufacture the product themselves. Those who can't do, as the saying goes, teach.

The final package needs also to justify the price that will be charged by purveyors of this product. It needs to be complex but classy. It has to waft on the wind of the past while promising an unspecified but surely improved future. The car committee needs to design a chassis that is worthy of the Perfect Engine. Committee members would love for it to be designed around a yet-to-be developed material, one that just screams Tomorrow! Again, though, there is that need to sell the idea to actual manufacturers, so the committee adds to the standard a chassis made of tried-and-true materials that must be tortured into a shape that could be, but probably will not be, what the not-yet-real future technology allows.
"But what about the children?"
Whatever you do, do not be the person on the committee who asks: But what about the driver? How comfortable will it be? Will it be safe? Can children ride in it? (Answer: no, anyone who cares about the Perfect Engine will obviously have the sense to eschew children, who will only distract the adult's attention from the admiration of the Perfect Engine.) And never, ever point out that the design does not include doors for entering the vehicle. It's perfect, okay, just leave it at that. This is how we get a standard, and the industry around a standard; an industry that exists because the standard is so deeply just and true and right that no one can figure out how to use it, yet, because it is a standard from the August Authoritative Standards Organization, the rightity and trueness of the standard simply cannot be questioned. Because it is, after all, a standard, and standards exist to be obeyed.
"I've got mine!"
Another downfall of a standards committee is when the committee has one or more members of the "I've got mine" type. These are folks who already have a product of the genre the standard is meant to address, and their participation in the committee is to assure that their product's design becomes the standard. There are lots of variations on this situation. A committee with only one "I've got mine" becomes a simple test of wills between the have and the have nots. A committee with more than one "I've got mine" becomes a battleground. The have nots on this committee might as well just go home because their views of what is needed are so irrelevant to the process that they can have the same effect on the outcome of the standards work by not being there. Who wins the battle depends on many things, of course, but I'd usually advise that you bet on the largest, richest "I've got mine." It is especially helpful if the "I've got mine" holds patents in the area and can therefore declare (true story) "If you create it, we'll destroy you with with patent claims."

Like the engineer of the perfect model, the "I've got mine" has an idee fixe. In this case, though, the idee may not be perfect or complete or even usable. But it exists, and "I've got mine" does not want to change. Therefore every idea that is not already in the product of "I've got mine" meets with great resistance. At various points in the discussion, "I've got mine" threatens to take his ball and go home. For reasons that have never been clear to me, the committee takes this threat seriously and caves in to "I've got mine" even though most members of the committee actually understand that the committee would be more successful without this person.
"...even though they repeat often the mantra "We can always blow it up and start over" they never, never start over."
This then takes me to downfall number 3: once standards committees dig themselves into a hole, once they have started down a path that is quite clearly not going to result in success, and even though they repeat often the mantra "We can always blow it up and start over" they never, never start over. The standard that comes out always looks like the non-standard that went in on day one, regardless of how dysfunctional and mistaken that is. This is one of the reasons why there are standards on the books that were developed through great effort and whose person hours would add up to hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars spent and yet they have not been adopted. Common sense allows people outside of the bubble of the standards committee process to admit that the thing just isn't going to work. No way. That's the best possible outcome; the worst possible outcome is that through an excess of obedience in a community with a hive mind the standard is adopted and therefore screws everything up for that community for decades, until a new standards committee is launched.
"...we can have a new standard, but nothing can really change."
If you think that committee will solve the problem, then I suggest you go back to top of this essay and begin reading all over again. Because by now you should be anticipating downfall number 4: we can have a new standard, but nothing can really change. The end result of applying the new standard has to be exactly the same as the result obtained from the old standard. The committee can therefore declare a great success, and everyone can give a sigh of relief that they can go on doing everything the same way they ever did, perhaps with slightly different terminology and a bunch of new acronyms.

Now off I go to read some more emails, asking myself:  "Is this the time to ask: what about the children?"


Eddie F. Fitzgerald said...


Can you name which standard you are talking about in section 2, the "alpha-geek" driven, two-years-of-chipping-and-transforming one? Can you provide a link to this "one hundred page document?"

And maybe even some of the other standards you have participated in during the eras of your life?

I like the consultants and teachers part, though.


Karen Coyle said...

No, I am not going to out any of the folks or efforts I am criticizing. That would be mean and unfair, and the post is already mean and unfair enough. It's about the process not about individual efforts.

paul fogel said...

great piece Karen. sad, but completely hilarious. not sure which was your intent; regardless, good stuff. thanks to Mr. Tingle for sharing.

Unknown said...

I am sure each of us could add many other annoyances that they have encountered in such committees. Some problems are systemic and hard to fix. I do wonder though if the situation about the alpha-geeks is as simple as you display it. If someone presents a worked-out solution to a problem, then maybe he or she has already worked in this problem space for many years, and already has experience that other group members first need to catch up with.