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Ethical product management

Ethics in product design, management and delivery

Actions have consequences. Our product design decisions matter, they have an impact on individuals, organisations and society at large. But rarely are they clear cut. Moral conundrums abound behind every ‘corner’. With this post and talk I want to

  • raise awareness of ethical conundrums
  • demonstrate why ethics matter
  • propose a framework for making ethically sound decisions

The aim of sharing my thoughts is to inspire practitioners to be more mindful and deliberate with their actions and make better, more ethical choices.

Conundrums galore…

My first job was with an agency that nearly went bust because they’d rather go bust than market weapons. Years later, I was offered an amazing opportunity to transfer agility to engineering: A major opportunity for thought leadership and disruption. Alas, this would have been related to a new weapons platform. My colleagues argued that our country was one of the good ones, we needed to support our allies, protect everyone from the crazies elsewhere. I would have been convinced, except for that statement in my country’s defence budget, that spoke about ‘opening economic opportunities’. I can only assume this meant weapons sales, and was not convinced that our government could be trusted to make good decisions on who to sell to. Not too long after my declining to work on this, Russia invaded Ukraine countries are supporting Ukraine with arms (something that feels right)…

This might be an extreme example, but we face such conundrums all the time, even if we may not be acutely aware of them. The point is that our actions have consequences, and so the question must be “Who do you work for, what do you work on, where do you make your expertise available?”

While I focus on product management, this, really, is a question that in the end everyone working on products or services needs to answer. For the big decisions like who you work for, but also for the seemingly ‘small ones’ what features you build, how you design, implement and operate them, how do you treat your customers, what do you optimise for? Do you make content recommendations or do you hyper-personalise building echo chambers, do you support courts in making fair decision or do you build recidivism models that lead to a spiral of injustice, do you nudge people to better ‘behaviours’ or do you implement a dystopian social credits system?

In practice questions like these can get hard to answer, having to balance expectations and needs of organisations, individuals and society at large. But answer you must, because ignorance is neither bliss, nor acceptable.

I will raise many more such conundrums, some existential, many very day to day, hands on and practical in my talk (video above).

What does ‘ethically good’ look like?

“Maximum well-being of conscious creatures” and actions that lead towards this goal.

The reason I think this is a highly relevant goal is that well-being of populations has been shown to lead to more successful (flourishing) societies. Also, it is easy to understand, measurable and practically workable.

And if you don’t care? Assume you are the ‘king of the castle’? Trust me, you will still care, because you need that skilled, motivated and functional workforce to deliver and invent the luxury you desire, the innovations that make you live forever…

Some other arguments detractors will bring up are that we can neither perfectly define well-being, let alone consciousness, nor can we perfectly determine that best action, let alone ever, practically reach ‘maximum well-being’, consequently, they argue, this is all wrong and pointless. The mistake they make is that the fall prey to the Nirvana and Perfect Solution fallacies: they mix up ‘in principle’ with ‘in practice’, and most importantly totally miss the point that perfection is the enemy of good, and that just because we may not be able to reach perfect just yet (or ever) incremental improvement are still worth making…

In practice this means that drawing from Sam Harris’ concept the Moral Landscape we can look at the state of well-being as a landscape with peaks where we have more well-being and happiness and troughs with less of either. The idea is that our actions move us on that landscape, the better, more ethical ones moving us – generally speaking – up. We can also (scientifically) measure well-being and consequently know which actions are good ones, learn from their outcomes, and subsequently define strategies and policies.

In my talk (video above) I will expand on these aspects in more detail.

A framework for ethical decision making…

Admittedly all this is complicated, complex even.

However, mindsets such as agility, and frameworks such as Cynefin are perfectly suited to help us navigate this ‘moral landscape’. Remember, the only way is ‘up’, away from the troughs of suffering and disaster to higher areas of well-being. So in practice we need to determine those actions that we believe have consequences – outcomes – that lead us in that direction.

So how do we do this in practice?

  1. Formulate our ethical stance
  2. Make ethics stakeholders from day1 (see my free playbook and related talk on Compliance by Design)
  3. Assess intended and unintended consequences
  4. Choose best fit action
  5. Apply
  6. Measure
  7. Question, challenge, interrogate what you are doing, why, whether it is the right thing?
  8. Learn & adapt

Overall, we want to opt for climbing upwards on that moral landscape.

I explain this in more detail in my talk (video above).

Antidote to Product Practices

The antidote to modern product practices

Focusing on outcomes and customer needs alone isn’t good enough anymore. Applying ‘best practices’ without consideration of potential unexpected consequences can only end in tears… A more holistic view – antidotes – are required to ensure long-term sustainability of organisations (individual welfare, society and the environment).
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