ProjectEthics

The first of my four installments considering The Ethical Responsibilities of Project Work was published last week in the Projects@Work e-zine.

What prompts me to write about ethics now? In Thomas Friedman's Sunday, October 18 NYT column, he makes the provocative assertion that "We’re all connected and nobody is in charge." It seems to this humble chronicler that management science ignores this one great truth, assuming that we are natively disconnected and that someone's in charge. Consider a world where Friedman's assertion holds true AND where we assume otherwise. What kind of witch hunt might result? I imagine torches and pitchforks, accusations and indictments, the righteous search for those who were supposed to be in charge and failed to properly connect us, initiating yet another round of symbolic regulations (how do you spell Sarbaines-Oxley?) intended to hold those SOBs accountable. Again.

If we do, indeed, actually live in a world where we are all connected and no one's in charge, what regulating force might we depend upon? Legislation is inherently moralistic, denoting right from wrong, commanding, in properly Biblical phrasing, "Thou Shalt!" Ethics pertains only to those actions which, acknowledging the way things are, we choose to do in recognition of the costs—personal and societal—of choosing otherwise. It seeks not to command others, but to more fully inform their choices. If no one is in charge, it means not necessarily chaos, but personal responsibility. We are all, each, deeply connected. We hold, therefore, some responsibilities to ourselves and to our tightly-coupled fellows. Our choices matter more simply because we are so tightly connected and because no one is in charge.

My mother, bless her heart, has lived her life trying to get away with something, anything. I think her great grandfather was ruined in one of the late-ninteenth century financial panics, and her family's language rails a lot about the plutocrats, those who lead simply because they are wealthy. She's lived her life working hard to slip under one or another radar and periodically getting caught cutting corners. She self-medicates, and after fifteen years of Parkinson's Disease, there is no externally-enforceable regimen that can manage her meds. Her doctors have put her in charge, though she doesn't always make wise choices. We learn later, sometimes after transporting her to the emergency room, that she just decided to suspend one or another medication. We accompany her when she visits her doctor now because she paints rosier than reality pictures of her condition. Always trying to get away with something, apparently for the simple joy of feeling in charge.

Her sense that she is not in charge seems to encourage some of her more irresponsible actions. We've been amplifying the feedback channels that highlight the personal costs her choices accrue. When she sees that she's not getting away scott-free, she makes more responsible choices.

Well, we see the same stuff happening on projects. Some mandate seems to suspend the necessity of enlisting supporters, for instance,so we muster by conscription, believing that we've achieved some economy, shortened the time-line, cut through encumbering red tape. Later, we learn that some critical constituent has been carrying stones in his pocket ever since, and has positioned himself squarely between our imagined efficiency and our aspired-to goal, and we cannot get there from where we've innocently positioned ourselves and our misbegotten project. We chose unwisely.

I've grown to believe that there are a few, a very few, ethical responsibilities that anyone engaging in project work is better off understanding. Whether yours mirror mine might not matter as much as that we are each mindful of the choices we make, particularly those choices that seem to make themselves. Ethics are simply choices, well-informed or poorly informed makes all the difference in a world or a project where we're all connected and no one's ever really in charge. The blind leading the blind.

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