The Myth of Consistency

"We all need to be using the same process."
"We need to standardize on terminology"

Everyone seems to agree, without question, that we need consistency.  It's time to question the assumption that all consistency is inherently good.  What is consistency really buying you?

The answer I usually get to that question is "Well, if someone moves between teams we don't want them to be confused because team A says 'sprint' and team B says 'iteration'" . Really?  Really?  When I say I'm "Driving my car" and then someone else says they "Riding in my automobile" are you confused?  I think people are smarter than we give them credit for.

In truth though, language barriers can block productivity.  Metric vs English snafu at NASA.  Lockheed used metric to build the spacecraft and NASA used the English system to operate it.  Things didn't turn out well, the error wasn't discovered until the post-launch and we lost the spacecraft. ( ) . Process and culture differences can have a similar detrimental effect.

The real question here is, what is the VALUE of the Consistency, both positive and negative.   And how does this value stack up against the other things you can focus your energy on?

Take this case for example.  A company wants to standardize on a tool for software development.  The upside is that it will save $1M in tool licenses if everyone uses the same tool.  Wow, great, let's go for it!

Hang on, now the downside.  Teams feel disempowered and productivity drops by $2M.  A new product is in the works, the new technology is not supported but the standard tool.  The team spends 5 weeks jumping through administrative hoops to get a development tool that supports the new technology.   During that time, a competitor releases a competing product, grabbing $50M of market share.

Was consistency worthwhile in this case?

In some cases the answer will be "yes" it is worth it.  For example with terminology.  If we have to level set on terminology in every meeting  that costs us $1M in productivity,  and it only costs us $120,000 to rollout a training campaign to teach folks the new words.  Don't forget to factor in the opportunity cost.  What else could you be doing with that time and money?  Nothing?  Great, then go for it!

With Agile Transformations, companies are very concerned about getting different divisions to do "the same Agile".  The way I see it, here are your options...

1.  Spend 4 years getting agreement and rolling out a consistent Agile process and training to the whole company so you can perfectly execute all at once, in sync with no confusion.
2. Work with each division to start being Agile right now.  Get the returns.  
If each division doubles their productivity, at the cost of some confusion, won't that be better than waiting 4 years to improve?

What can you do to avoid unnecessary consistency?

Call it out.  Simply question whether consistency is truly the next most valuable thing to put energy into.  Get people thinking and prioritizing.  

Use Prioritization.  Be clear that consistency has a cost and a return.  Draw up a quick model of the possible upside and downside values of the consistency at hand, and then compare it to other time and energy 'investments' you can be making as an organization.

What have you done to avoid unnecessary consistency?  How did it work?  Please share in the comments, we'd love to hear from you!

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
— Oscar Wilde
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson