Standing Out / Outstanding: The Standards Problem

Building up to be unique...just like everyone else?

Human service providers live in paradox by stressing best practices while wishing for some recognition of the unique qualities that they bring. Can being unique be the standard we need?

Recently, I was with a colleague discussing the challenges that universities are facing with respect to the twin issues of curtailing costs and expanding revenues. Standing out is getting to be more important than ever.

What captured our attention was the great irony that we are at a time when there is such a great drive to standardize when the marketplace is so crowded. The very competitive advantage that comes with being unique is being subsumed under pressure to be like everyone else.

In education, health sciences, and social and human services we are seeing this remarkable drive towards things such as accreditation of programs, implementation of best practices throughout the curriculum, and certification of activities that once did not require it. The underpinning logic is that having some kind of benchmark and standard that all programs or activities of a similar nature can adhere to will ensure that there is sufficient quality for the consumer of such programs.

While there are certainly activities where standards and consistency work well (for example, I don’t really want the pilot of my next flight expressing his creativity through the way he maneuvers the airplane), these standards or best practices are based on a view that the world is relatively simple, or a least principally ordered. The Cynefin Framework can help identify certain conditions where these type of systems thrive.

However, in fields like health promotion, community psychology, the arts, much of social work, and those working in the open systems found in communities and many organizations, order is a fleeting condition and unstable.

To be good at what you do in these domains, whether it is hosting a design charrette or doing community-based research, one has to pay considerable attention to subtle difference and adjust a strategy accordingly. This customization of activity — which does not require a wholesale abandonment of what has been done before  – are the very things that signify empathy, create connection, and represent a true mark of competence in this domain. Being different across settings and conditions — standing out — is what makes a service outstanding.

This tension or paradox is something that could benefit from much more exploration and might serve as something for universities and professions to consider taking seriously. Ironically, the establishment of much of what “best practice” seeks to achieve might be accomplished through celebrating difference.

** Photo Unique by rossaroni used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

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