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Project management - The ethical vs the practical

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Finally, it appears the future of the 2012 Olympic Stadium has been resolved with West Ham United winning out over Tottenham Hotspur’s proposal to knock it down and replace it with a football stadium.

Tottenham argued that only football could draw the crowds required to turn the stadium into a long term financial success. Manager Harry Redknapp warned, pragmatically, that “Half the seats would be empty and it would become a desolate graveyard for a once-great club.”  Supporters of the West Ham bid, including Lord Coe, talked of the “moral obligations” and “maintaining reputations” amongst the international community in keeping the stadium’s athletics facilities.

These discussions are common within project management – the ethical versus the practical – what can you do and what should you do? Project managers, of course, are ‘can-do’ people – if you present them with a challenge, they will instinctively rise to it.

It sometimes paints the project manager as a corporate gunslinger, a hired gun who sorts things out and asks questions later (or not at all). Being a corporate John Wayne, or perhaps more contemporarily, Vincent Vega, is quite a seductive image. But as respected project professionals, is this enough?

At the APM Project Management Conference, Sir Peter Gershon said “... professional project managers, if they see common failure modes being exhibited in a programme they're being asked to manage, they should flag that up and, hopefully, if it's early enough in the project, avoiding action can be taken.”

APM Registered Project Professionals will be asked to sign up to the APM Code of Professional Conduct which will require them to do just that. They will be bound to ask not just ‘can we do it?’, but ‘should we do it?’

So, what is the right ethical code for project professionals? The code talks of ‘integrity’ and ‘health and safety’ as its main tenets; the risk of death and injury or criminal activities are reasonably easy to identify as a breach of any code of ethics. However, many of us will never be put into a position where we are challenged in this way.

What about the more subtle ethical challenges? ‘Risk suppression’ and the ‘conspiracy of optimism’ are both more prevalent and both contribute to project failure. What about the dark arts of project management that don’t feature in text books – the tricks you learn to get the job done like the withering look you give a client who suggests an improvement you could make, but really don’t want to.

Other professions are equally challenged. Lawyers are obliged to represent those who are criminal or amoral. Doctors aim to cure regardless of their patients’ race, sex, past history, political or ideological views. There will be times when they will be challenged personally, but their commitment to their professional obligations rule over any personal perspective they may have. 

I would argue that the emergence of the responsible project professional and the APM Registered Project Professional designation marks a significant shift in the way the profession will operate. A demonstrably competent and ethic practitioner builds trust, status and recognition. These are the benefits, but it doesn’t make understanding or applying the ethical code any easier.


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  1. Paul Naybour
    Paul Naybour 09 October 2011, 09:55 AM

    ScottYou are right about the dark arts of project management. I have been doing some highly unsientific research, including a interesting discussion with a group of project managers at #pmteacamp. We identified six different dark arts of project management The curse of optimismThe light of mobilisationThe islands of isolationThe illusion of controlThe resistance of changeThe allure of the lowest price As you say these dark arts are not covered in the project management text books or project management training. However they are as old as time and at the same time are the underlieing courses of many of the problems with projects. I am sure we would all agree that increasing professionalisum will be good for projects, but how will it over come these dark arts. Maybe we need to think about a APM guide on the defence against the dark arts. I have started a bit of work on a presentation called defence against the project management dark arts, may be it would be an interesting topic for some branch meetings. 

  2. Alistair Godbold
    Alistair Godbold 23 February 2011, 02:06 PM

    What is the ethical responsibility of the project manager, to do the right thing, or to get the job done?       If it is to do the right thing; the right thing by whom, the public, society, or the client?  Each have different, and I would like to suggest legitimate views about what is ethical.  In some cultures the payment to a middleman is a way of doing business, in others it is called bribery.  Under some bribery legislation these grease payments are legal, under the UK Bribery Act they are illegal.       If it is to get the job done, and it is done in such a way that will damage the reputation of the client, the project manager or his organisation, then this is self-defeating and wrong. I think the role of the project manager is to maintain this balance and be true to himself and his profession.  The way that this can be done is by being ethical, not the simple do not lie, take bribes and put other people down.  These are straightforward; it is the more complex balances where the project manager as a leader in the organisation begins to add real value to the project and his profession.  Ethical theory and reflection can be used to allow the project manager to structure his thoughts and arrive at a decision.  More importantly it allows him to articulate his decisions to his team and the wider community in a way that is clear and helps them be interpreted in a positive way to deliver a successful project outcome. Ethical project management is not just a nice to have when times are good.  It is an essential part of how a project manager leads his projects.  As important, is the way in which these difficult decisions are communicated to ensure they are perceived as ethical ensuring the best outcomes for all.