Consistency Is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

Ever heard someone tell you “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?”

They’re misquoting Ralph Waldo Emerson by leaving out an important word: foolish.

That’s like leaving out the word “not” in a statement. The whole meaning changes because of the omission. We can all agree that “I am on fire” and “I am not on fire” are two very different statements. The same is true here. Let’s examine the actual quote:

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. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.

As with most things, context matters, which is what makes this quote inappropriate almost everywhere I see it used. In the context of IT, with consistency, a great soul can trade meaningless & soul-crushing work for important & strategic tasks, moving their organization forward rather than struggling just to keep up. In IT, consistency is generally a good thing, and when it is delivered via standards and automation it forms a stable & solid & predictable foundation on which we can build towering pinnacles of applications and services. Stability and predictability are important things to app developers, end users, and those of us that want to take a vacation from time to time.

However, there are foolish consistencies. When your automation becomes handcuffs and not an enabler it’s foolish. When your standards are held so tightly that you cannot enable new business ventures because of them it’s foolish. When efficiencies aren’t taken advantage of, new technology and methods eschewed, and/or positive changes avoided with the excuse of “standards” or “that isn’t the way we do things” it’s foolish.

Neither standards nor our tools are an end unto themselves. They exist to enable greater things, and when that stops being true we need to change them so they are helpful to us again. After all, having two standards is still better than having 1500 one-offs.

 

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