The Standards Development Life Cycle

Why does it take so long?

Why does standards development take so long? I’m sure we’ve all been asked this question. The reality is that anything that worth doing, takes a bit of time to do. Especially when a key, fundamental, aspect of that work involves gaining insights and perspectives from a wide range of individuals that might use or be affected by that standard. Let’s dig in a bit deeper and look at a few steps of the standards development process that take the longest.

Drafting the Standard

Many committees begin a new standard with a blank piece of paper. There’s a general idea of what the group would like to accomplish but getting from ideas to a fully written document requires

    • Brainstorming
    • Developing an outline
    • Assigning groups to work on different sections
    • Reviewing the document as a group
    • Making additional revisions
The Standards Development Cycle

And then repeat those last two steps a few times if it’s a more complicated document. 

And because the volunteers on those groups have full-time jobs to get back to and other life commitments, add 30 days or more in between meetings. If it takes four meetings for a group to develop a document, that’s 4 months at least. If a group would rather meet in person to do a lot of the writing, add even more time to coordinate an in-person meeting. And really, how many projects have you been on where the group finished all decision making in just 4 meetings?

Formal Review and Commenting on Documents

After your standards writing group (committee, consortium, consensus group, etc.) feels that the document is ready for broader distribution and review it then goes into either a public comment or public consultation phase. Meaning, the document is shared broadly to non-group members to gain their feedback. This is usually a very structured process where commenters need to use a comment form and identify specific revisions that they are proposing. See our article on submitting a quality comment which further explains the commenting process. Each commenting phase is typically open for 30 or 60 days but can be a lot longer if the group feels that the target audience will need the additional time to read through the document. And document can go through multiple rounds of commenting. Adding anywhere from 1 month to 4 or more months to the process.

Adjudication of Comments

When those comments are received by the document drafting group, they need to do something with them. The process of reviewing and deciding on what to do is called adjudicating the comments. For each comment, the group needs to decide if it has merit, if the solution proposed is something they can live with, or if additional work is needed. This process can become quite complicated if multiple comments related to a section then need to be compared and considered to find the ‘best fit’ change that will be acceptable for everyone. See our article on reaching consensus to get an idea about how a group reaching their ‘best fit’ solution.

The group then drafts a formal response to each comment explaining whether they accepted the comment and will make a change (and what change they’re making) or why they won’t accept the comment or make the suggested change. For some rounds of commenting, a group could receive hundreds of comments. If you factor even one minute for each comment and one minute to draft the response that can easily lead to several hours of review. In addition to the time needed just to review the comments, also add to that the prep time needed for the group to review the comments in advance, prepare for the meeting, and to provide the written responses back to the commenters.

If the group seeks comments more than once, multiple the time needed. Meaning, 3 months now jumps to 6 or more.

The Sum of All Steps

Many standards developers quote around 2 years from start to finish to develop a standard. Can they do it in shorter time? Yes, if everyone in the group agrees to meet more often, to make this a sole focus of their day-to-day work, and they limit the commenting, they can complete the document in less time. Also revising standards that have already been published can at times be a very short process.

However, some developers will also tell you it takes 3 or even 4 or 5 years to finalize a document. And it’s not surprising when you consider the very important, needed steps, that we’ve highlighted.

And so, the next time someone asks you why it takes so long to develop a standard, just let them know – bread takes time to rise, flowers take time to bloom, anything that you want to be amazing when it’s done – takes time. And it’s worth it. The standard is almost always a better document in the end.  Making it always worth it.

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