Four Principles for Successful Standards

Published on Friday, September 12, 2008


A required or agreed level of quality or attainment.

A standard is an expectation that is agreed is important to achieve. In that context, I've found that the application of principles to establishing standards helps ensure they are effective and usable.

A fundamental quality determining the nature of something.

Applying these principles defines the fundamental attributes of a standard, i.e. what needs to be true for something to be an applicable standard.

Principle of Relevance

Closely connected or appropriate to what is being done or considered.

A standard must be a means to an end. A standard must be guided by vision or visions. i.e. the end is a goal or objective that helps achieve a vision or visions. That progress towards a vision is adding value.

The vision the standard applies to must be appropriate to what is expected to meet the standard. In addition to helping to achieve the vision of the standard, achieving the standard in a scenario must also help to achieve the vision of the scenario. i.e. it is appropriate in the scenario and aligns with--or is important to--the goals and objectives of the scenario.

Principle of Specifics

Clearly defined or identified.

Something identifiable is something that has uniqueness. It is something with a recognizable boundary when compared to other things. Standards can be related, but a standard must be granular enough to have independence from one another so that they be independently, thus effectively, applied. Standards must have clear expectations and scope to be applied individually.

Principle of Actionable

Ability to be done or acted upon.

Initiatives that are specific and appropriately focused are more easily actionable. A standard may apply to a wide variety of situations, but specific circumstances to make it easy to break down into tasks for that variety of situations. For a standard to be applicable to a particular scenario the steps to define that would apply the standard and be observed as done must be unmistakable.

Principle of Measurable

Able to be measured and compared

Anything that provides practical value should be expected to do so in a measurable way. Actionable implies steps or actions can be defined, which also means progress can be measured. Whether or not the value was obtained or the requirements were met needs to be known. Frequently a degree of success need to be measured independently of done.

The criteria of success is part of the definition of done. Presumably "done" does not mean failure. You could argue that actionable falls within measurable (and you'd be right) but all expectations of action share a measure of "done", but not all expectations of actions have other, unique, measures. A standard must outline or detail measures and metrics to demonstrate successful completion.


These concepts aren't especially innovative. Many standards refer to wording like "normative" and "clauses" that should be viewed as providing measure, specifics, and actionability. My experience over the years that typical standards aren't always complete or are not very consumable. What I hope is that these principles make it easier to understand what a standard should do, promote creating standards that aren't as open for interpretation, and reduce the possibility of getting mired down in discussions of standards-like terminology. e.g. IETF RFC 2119:

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119.

Additionally, these principles can help measure the quality of a particular standard.

The astute may have noticed or associated the principles to goals; specifically SMART goals (again, not new innovation). Effectively: standards are requirements, which are goals and objectives.


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