Standards help frame our world, from organizing labor pools, to fostering trade relations, to opening up communication channels. Blind allegiance to standards, however, can compromise collaboration, cripple innovation, and cause business leaders to temporarily forget why they adopted the protocol in the first place.

In a recent Q&A, Dominic Thomas, adjunct assistant professor of information systems and operations management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, discusses the breakdown of the organizational status quo in uncertain environments, prompting companies to craft and use standards that enable agile coordination. Thomas recently moderated a panel discussion, “Crossing Barriers: Coordination and Standards,” as part of the Knowledge Futures: The Agility Imperative symposium held at Goizueta. Joining him in the talk were senior decision makers from the government and private sectors, including the Federal Aviation Administration, CARE, and The World Bank.

Newsroom: The process of leveraging collective intelligence to respond to crisis situations can be tremendously inefficient but also tremendously effective. Can too much consensus building lead to inaction, and if so, what can an organization do to counterbalance this?

Thomas: Yes. People need to only block a consensus process when there is a legitimate “blocking concern,” yet many fail to recognize the distinction between blocking concerns and any concern. I serve on a board that uses a formal consensus process, and I have seen the impact of making individuals commit to explicitly naming their blocking concerns. I believe the process works efficiently as a result. That said, I have not seen the process carried out in this manner anywhere else. As technologies and norms for using them evolve, we have new opportunities to identify patterns through collective intelligence, with less energy required during crisis situations. Businesses can implement such ideas internally, too, and they are beginning to do so. As they do, they will benefit from identifying methods to collaborate and cooperate in a timely manner.

Newsroom: What steps should an organization take to draft standards that are more responsive and relevant to changing environments?

Thomas: During our discussion, we heard several good suggestions about creating living standards. First of all, allow for multiple drafts of a standard from the start, so that people expect it to evolve, as in the PDF standard used for portable, digital documents. Second, govern standards in an open format with the participation of those impacted. Third, make the context of the standard explicit and provide a process for overriding the standard. Finally, as a standard evolves, be careful to distinguish compatible and incompatible versions of that standard. In organizational cooperation memoranda, these distinctions are rarely identified. As a result, I suspect we see a proliferation of policies not clearly linked to any history or organizational need.

To view the video of the “Crossing Barriers: Coordination and Standards” panel discussion, click here.