Having Project Ethics is Leadership

13 August

Unrealistic promises had been made to the client about what a product could do, milestones were published and committed to that could never be met, and timelines were established without any project planning involving the people who would be doing the work. You’ve been asked to manage the project.  As John Quinones would say, “What would you do?”

We have all read stories about ethical corruption resulting in companies closing, people foreclosing on their homes, and retirement funds depleted. In the project management arena project managers need to practice good ethics because it’s the right thing to do. When it comes to leading and managing projects it costs more to follow a path of unethical business practices than to be honest and do what is right.

Ethics, quite simply, is good business; it represents satisfied customers, referrals, repeat business, and reduced operating costs. Unethical practices simply sets up a collision course with disaster costing the business, your clients and your own reputation, maybe not immediately, but inevitable nonetheless.

We all know what is right and wrong, but ethics requires a person with strength and character. You already know that as a project manager you need to keep your word, be honest and lead your team in an upright and respectable way. The question is; do you have the guts to do so? The following are some simple guidelines:

Do not commit to a schedule to deliver a project until:

You have a documented business case that has been approved by key stakeholder(s) outlining the costs and expected benefits to be realized.

Your subject matter experts have documented business and system requirements.

The people assigned to the team confirmed their time allocation to the project.

All stakeholders have a firm understanding of what is needed to be done.

Your team has developed a work breakdown structure, identified dependencies and estimated work effort for key activities and milestones.

Once you’ve completed the above you need to commit to good ethics and create a culture of transparency by:

Publishing status reports that indicate progress, slippage, reason for slippage and actions that must be taken to get the project back on track

Identifying and owning up to mistakes that were made that cause re-work and revised timelines

Communicating any unrealistic promises that had been made to a client about what a product could do or when components of the project would be delivered.

Project managers must be leaders in their organizations and pushing back is leadership. The refusal of key stakeholders to acknowledge problems does not make them go away. It just reduces the chances of success even further by removing any possibility of being able to take proactive steps to reduce project risk.

If conversations to correct problems with key stakeholders are unsuccessful then you need to escalate. Bring the issue to the PMO, the portfolio management function, the CFO, CEO or whomever it takes. Communicate to key stakeholders that you are going to escalate the situation. Don’t make the issue about stakeholders who will not listen rather that you have a project that can not be completed as defined. Be prepared to identify options to change the project in order to give it a good chance of success whether its scope changes, schedule changes, re-prioritizing resources or a phased approach.

A major part of your role is to make sure that the right things are being done in the right way to maximize chances of the enterprise achieving its goals and managing expectations with key stakeholders along the way. And to this you can’t blindly follow what you know is wrong.

We all want to believe that practicing good ethics in both our personal and professional lives is the right thing to do; that we should not wrong, cheat, or defraud others. The reality though is if we allow unscrupulous ethical practices to creep into our lives it will act like a vine that starts at the root and, if left unchecked, slowly climbs the tree and eventually strangles it.

The Project Management Institute has established a Code of Ethics that all Project Management Professionals (PMP) must adhere to. These ethics are meant to ensure that all PMP’s abide by a set of values, and live up to those values in pursuit of their careers. Project ethics won’t ensure you are a successful project manager, however not behaving ethically will almost always ensure your project will fail.

Do you have the ethics to push back when you know things are wrong? Are you willing to do this in the face of your harshest critics? If not, you may want to look for a new profession. No one ever claimed leadership is easy and we are not being ethical leaders if we continue to go through the motions of managing a project that we know will fail.

You always have the option of saying no when asked to put ‘spin’ on a project plan or a status report to hide ‘bad news’. The question is: Are you willing to pay the price? Do you really have the convictions of your beliefs? I have been asked many times to put spin on status reports and project plans and I said no.

It boils down to challenging the culture and getting people to change behavior by reporting and addressing bad news. Resistance to report ‘bad news’ comes because management doesn’t want to address organizational deficiencies which is typically the reason why bad news needs to be reported.  So what would you do?


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