Religion is just one way people learn ethics.

Religion is just one way people learn ethics.

I recently overheard an offhanded comment that went something like, “if you aren’t cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.”  What are ethics?  What is the purpose of ethical frameworks?  Why should they matter to those who manage process improvement?

Wikipedia defines ethics as a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good vs. bad, noble vs. ignoble, right vs. wrong, and matters of justice, love, peace, and virtue.  Hardly the stuff of project management or process improvement, however there is a branch of ethics called applied ethics (doesn’t that sound much more practical?) that seeks to address our daily business lives.

Interest in ethics waxes and wanes over time; they tend to wax when things go awry.  Obvious examples abound, like when Enron  went up in flames, ethics became a hot topic, at MCI during their accounting debacle and even during the BP Oil well crisis. But there are less obvious examples such as the spin to under play a risk in a status report or when someone occasionally conflates effort and progress when a project is behind.  Unless a framework or code is in place to highlight these transgressions, large or small, they go unnoticed and nothing can be changed.

Most ethical frameworks serve two common purposes. The first purpose is to guide behavior so that it is predictable.  Codes of conduct provide a path to guide both the organization’ and the individual’s actions (to an extent they can be different).  Codes of ethics, codes of conduct and the effort to enforce them help to identify deviant behavior before it can injure the organization. The second purpose is as an announcement to the larger world of the higher order rules an organization intends to follow.

The ethics enshrined in these frameworks evolve to guide behavior and provide all affected parties with an understanding of how people (and people proxies) should act.  Rules, laws and manifestos (statements of principles and ethics) are how ethics are applied in the real. The rule, “Thou shall not install un-unit tested code” creates a set of expected behaviors and a set of obligations on all parties.  Living up to the rule is a matter of ethics.  The translation of ethics into codes of conduct, rules, laws or other codes provide a line in the sand so that you can judge whether an action is ethical or not.  The more black and white the ethics rule is the easier it is to follow in real time.

Most corporate codes of conduct or ethics do not address some of the more specific issues with which a project manager of a process improvement projects will need to wrestle.  What can be done?

I begin my process improvement projects by establishing a process improvement manifesto.  The exercise has many benefits; however the primary goal is to help empower the team to make the decisions without having to get permission.  The manifesto acts a basis to form very specific code of ethics to shorten the decision making loop which will improve efficiency for normal IT projects and process improvement projects.