Book Review: Managing Chaos :: UXmatters

Policies and Standards

Two other groan-worthy words are policies and standards. Some designers and creative types bristle at the thought of standards. How can you standardize creativity? The key here is to understand what standards are and are not. Standards should not be cookie-cutter approaches that are imposed on an organization, dictating how to create something. Welchman deftly points out that standards provide the underpinnings for many vital, creative endeavors. For example, Wikipedia, which is very open community, has a strict set of standards and policies; written music has a set of standards; and DNA represents a set of standards. Standards provide a framework that enables digital teams to execute with consistency and quality.

However, the use of standards can be contentious. The stewards of digital standards need to accept a necessary degree of flexibility in adherence to the defined standards. You’ll never achieve 100% compliance with standards. Sometimes people are ignorant of them, new team members or vendors may be unaware of them, and, at times, standards just don’t answer the questions a design team is asking.

Welchman describes the importance of aligning digital policy with corporate policy. While standards are an active work document that apply to the appearance of a product and the ways people can interact with it, policies are essentially governance documents that give authority to those standards and the governing team. Digital policy may include things such as when to collect customer information, privacy matters, and copyright information.

Similar to the decision to establish governance, policies and standards are foundational to achieving consistent quality and setting the guidelines for digital teams.

Digital and Business Strategy

Not everyone who should read Welchman’s book works for a startup or one of the big technology companies who have digital as a core competency of their business. Some may work for traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers who have an ecommerce division. Others may work for B2B (Business-to-Business) companies or manufacturers who rely largely on relationship selling and meeting customer specifications. Still others may work for nonprofits or in education.

What I like about Welchman’s advice in her book is her understanding that different industries have experienced varying levels of digital disruption. Too often, consultants and articles either provide a one-size-fits-all approach to governance and strategy, or they paint a pie-in-the-sky picture of the great potential that a pure B2B firm can achieve by following the latest digital fad.

Key among Welchman’s insights is the recognition that an organization’s digital maturity is a critical factor in its journey to creating a governance framework. Organizations seem to follow a maturity curve: in the beginning, digital expertise and projects are relatively unmanaged and may not be entirely incorporated in or aligned with corporate strategy.

Welchman provides a brilliant example in her anecdote about Blockbuster Video. It is well known that the video-rental chain met its demise largely because of digital disruption in its industry from the likes of Netflix and others. Certainly, Blockbuster maintained digital standards and governance to some degree. The company had a Web site and some identity standards. However, if digital activities had been better integrated with corporate strategy, Blockbuster’s leadership might have been able to benefit from digital disruption rather than suffer because of it.

Governance for All of Digital

Too often, as new technologies arise, their novelty leads executives to believe that things have changed. Indeed, the marketing materials for many new technology products includes similar messaging. Growth can lead to the creation of alternative governance structures. For example, companies may treat mobile apps as distinct from Web sites. This leads to fragmentation in an organization’s digital strategy and uneven quality in its execution.

I’ve seen this in my own experience—more than once. Although we may start out with one form of governance that we’ve defined in terms of a single deliverable such as a Web site, when a new development effort comes along—perhaps for a mobile app—we are caught flat footed. Because we’ve failed to think about the firm’s entire digital strategy, we didn’t consider other possibilities or a framework for standards. Instead, we focused on a specific type of deliverable.

Managing Chaos advocates taking a broad approach in establishing digital governance—one that is independent of specific technologies or work products.


Throughout her book, Welchman describes the decision to take on governance. Organizations—which are really just collections of people—need to appreciate that there is value in aligning activities that support governance, policies, and standards. This seems fundamental, but a key point of this book is that governance needs to start with people, not technology. Governance fails when it is half baked, unsupported, or unclear, or when it meets entrenched resistance.

I wish Welchman had written Managing Chaos about ten years earlier. I believe this book would have been hugely beneficial to both me and my colleagues in our previous work. It will certainly be helpful going forward. 

Note—A sample chapter from this book is available on UXmatters!

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