The Ethical Man Month

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ethicsSystems Thinking tells us that we are products of the system in which we operate. That we will perform based upon the ways we are being measured.

Personally I am astutely aware if the way I am being measured is also a target. I know the measure is not an effective way of helping me contribute to reaching the organisation’s goals.

But the thing I struggle to understand is that if we are gaming the system, and know we are doing so, at what point do our ethics kick in? What is our tipping point?

I once worked with a team that was battling against technical debt. Regression bugs were appearing with increasing frequency due to a lack of automated integration test coverage with legacy systems. My team wanted to do the right thing and fix the bugs that they found, despite the fact that it was not them who created the bugs, but were concerned that they were falling behind with their own work.

They assigned no blame to the unfortunate soul who checked in the code that caused the regression. In fact, they didn’t even get to find out who the culprit was until after time was already spend determining the cause of the bug. There was much complexity in the interactions between components and a gaping lack of integration tests across them. The team just wanted to fix the problem, add some appropriate tests to prevent the problem from happening again, and move on.

The problem for me was that this was impacting on our project schedule. The team were supposed to be working on stories for my project but instead were taking time working on bugs created by other teams. I was being measured on the delivery of the agreed scope in the agreed timeframe, not on our software delivery effectiveness across the portfolio. Surely it was in my best interest to ask the team not to work on other people’s bugs? My delivery schedule was being jeopardised. I would be held accountable for this. I would be asked tough questions. Why didn’t I deliver everything I said I would?

But here’s the thing. Despite how I am measured, I am passionate about creating good outcomes for the stakeholders, the customer and the company, not my specific project. I do not see the work to be done as a set of easily definable story cards. In this and other similar situations I wanted my team, and other teams, to spend time reducing technical debt across the board, improving code quality, collaborating with each other to find ways of making everyone’s lives easier, etc.

I can choose to let the system define me. To be a product of the system. Or I can choose to question things. To think holistically about how we can improve.

The system will reject this. But at least I can go to sleep at night knowing that I am doing what I believe is right.

How much do your ethics influence the decisions you make or don’t make in the workplace?

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2 thoughts on “The Ethical Man Month

  1. I was surprised when you asked “at what point do our ethics kick in?” As though you only turn to them as a last resort, or when you get pushed too far. For me, my ethics are there from the start. And so are everybody else’s.

    If I was working in the environment you describe, I’d see myself as part of a team, with a common purpose, and I’d expect a lot of communication about our goals and priorities and who is responsible for doing what. I wouldn’t decide for myself which bugs to fix. I’d be accountable to others for that decision.

    If they tell me something else is more important , I might argue, but I’d accept the outcome. What I wouldn’t do is ‘game the system’ To me, contributing to the activity of the group is ethical. Setting my own priorities isn’t.

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