Ethics and Trust: The Case of the Miraculous Program Recovery

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By Dr. Valerie Denney,  EMAG member

In this blog, I encourage you to comment on this hypothetical, but realistic case, that describes a program that had an apparent miraculous recovery.

Trust and ethics…. Two powerful, yet common words.  Do we just use the words as slogans without stopping to think about what they really mean?

“Trust, but verify.”

“In God we trust.”

“Got ethics?”

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Let’s begin with a simple definition for ethics:  the rules of conduct for a particular culture or group. Using a thesaurus yields words such as integrity, morality, honesty, and conscience. For trust, let’s use reliance on the ability, integrity, and surety of an individual or institution.

Covey, in his bestseller, The Speed of Trust, describes trust with all stakeholders as a key leadership competency. Project managers, as with other leaders, build trust by the manner in which they make ethical decisions- those which make the best possible choices while working within the constraints and expectations of the environment. Leadership is inextricability linked with ethical choices.

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As project and program managers, we have an obligation to comply with the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. The code embraces four global project management community values including responsibility, respect, fairness, and honesty. In context to this topic, respect is our duty to show a high regard to ourselves, others, and the resources entrusted to us. Honesty is our duty to understand the truth and act in a truthful manner in all that we do.

Consider the following situation with respect to ethics and trust.

You are the program manager of a high technology contract that has significant risk. There were a number of bumps on the program in the first 9 months including key personal issues, supplier problems, design errors, and late contract deliverables.  Since then, everything seems to be going well… at least according to your chief engineer.  Apparently program recoveries can come true!

You haven’t heard of any significant problems since this new chief engineer came to the program 5 months ago.  In fact, the weekly test metrics are excellent and far better than they were 4 months ago.  According to last week’s report, we are meeting, and in some places exceeding, the test completion plan. 

Last week a government auditor was at our facility for the annual review of the program. She and the chief engineer are good friends and served in the military together.  They go back at least 15 years. As friends, the chief engineer and the auditor went for an evening on the town. The chief engineer bragged “I have found a foolproof way of keeping the program on track.  All I need to do is estimate the results of the simple tests. I am positive everything works so actually I am being efficient and saving time and money.” The auditor gave a puzzled look, but continued the reunion that evening.

The next day, the auditor continued the review and stumbled across some problems with the way the test data was recorded.  Some of the detailed evidence seems to be missing.  A few days later, the auditor meets with you, and reveals a number of deficiencies, including issues with the test reporting.

You are shocked. How is this possible? There must be some mistake.  The chief engineer assured you that everything was great and you believed it to be true.

You meet with the chief engineer for clarification. The chief admits that there have been shortcuts, “but only on the tests that don’t really matter.  We all know those simple tests work, so why waste our time and money on a formality?”

The meeting ends abruptly. You trusted the chief engineer to be a leader and a technical expert?  You ask yourself “how could this happen?”

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What action(s)  would you take now?

What lesson(s) can we take from this scenario so we don’t encounter similar situations in the future?

In the end, performing ethically allows us to execute projects and programs successfully while acting in a manner which is consistent with our personal, company, and professional associations. Simply stated O’Brochta (2016) wrote that “ethics lead to trust, which leads to leadership, which in turn leads to project success.” This hypothetical case allows us to continue to explore this statement.

For more ethical resources please visit: https://www.pmi.org/about/ethics.

O'Brochta, M. (2016). Why project ethics matter: Leadership is built on trust. If the foundation is cracked, a project's future is in doubt. PM Network, 30(1), 29.

Posted by Valerie Denney on: August 14, 2018 01:33 PM | Permalink

Comments (14)

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Thank you for sharing this realistic hypothetical scenario! It seems too good to be true that after 9 months of issues, a new chief engineer makes all problems disappear. This on its own should have raised alarm bells. Furthermore, even if the new chief engineer is a miracle worker who solved prior problems, one would expect new problems to emerge. Lack of problems is a problem on its own right - how can everything go well in a complex/high technology environment?

The reports from the new chief engineer seem to be inaccurate and not representative. In addition to the ethics dimension, one cannot help but ask about the Governance and Quality of the Program Framework and its execution.

Thanks for sharing this blog, Valerie.

The situation raises questions at different levels:
-at the organizational level, the place of ethics in the culture of the organization, the project management framework and the project maturity level, along with the place of this project in the strategy of the organization
-at management and senior management level, the management abilities, the monitoring process, and capabilities, the performance management system in place and the capabilities of the ones in charge
-at the employee level, the two layers of ethical compliance as an engineer and as a project manager, in alignment to the Code of Ethics

The blind trust that the project manager put in his employee raises serious questions about the program manager's abilities to manage the team and such a risky project that has been in troubles for so many months.
More questions to be asked:
-What is the governance of this project
-How often is the project status presented to the program manager
-Has a risk plan been developed and if so how often it is reviewed
-Does the organization have a Code of Ethics and a Code of Conduct, and how is it applied?
-Have the roles and the responsibilities for this project been defined and consistently applied?

Good points. Yes you can trust but verify!!!!!

Great article, Valerie.

Amany,

Thank you for your comments. I couldn't agree with you more. Alarm bells were everywhere. Whether we are talking about project performance or ethics, the feeling that something isn't right gives PMs the opportunity to investigate further and take action before it is too late.

Thank you for your contribution.

Lily,

Your comments really hit at the heart of this scenario. This is clearly a multi-dimensional problem and solution.

I particularly can relate to your comment about blind trust. Effective project governance is key.... not too many meetings, but not too few.

Seems like this team needs a heart to heart ethics code of conduct working session. This just isn't acceptable. Is the culture broken that permits this type of action.

Tamer,

Trust but verify is one of my favorite sayings. Yes, as leaders we need to trust those who work on our project teams, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting the data to support the trust. That is one of the reasons that experience is so important. A less experienced PM often takes things at face value. An experienced PM says "hmmm... something doesn't seem right". This is true whether we are talking a project performance or lapses in ethical judgment.

Great post, Valerie, thank you for sharing the case with us. And I also appreciate the comments related to the 'multi-dimensions' of the problem. For me, it raised a question of the context: is this a strong hierarchical organization in which other team members are not allowed to communicate outside their 'chain of command', is it an organization where (no matter its structure) there is no trust to speak up? We know that honest communication needs a certain environment and I think that, when discussing this case, the ability of the PM to build the right environment is also something worth to be considered.

Great article, Valerie, thanks for sharing this realistic case . I do agree with all previous comments, and I need to add one thing which is:
One of the main reasons to fire the managers is "They don't realize the reality" and this happens due to the blind trust or the shortage of their ability to ask the right questions to discover what are under the surface.
Trust is not On/Off, it should build and takes time, not all the people are trustworthy, also the concept of ethics is different from a person to another due to the culture.
That's why the Program, project and portfolio managers have to be careful to avoid this trap.

Great post Valerie! Thank you for sharing, trust works both ways and I agree with Mohamed comment that concept of trust varies from person to person, but as a PMs, leaders of our team, we must work to build the trust culture to avoid traps and detect early warning signals.

Excellent blog post, Valerie!
I especially liked the way you connected Trust and Ethics, your storytelling approach, and the effectively chosen visuals.
Do continue contributing to enrich our PM community!
Meanwhile, kep smiling, keep shining, and keep leading!

Thank you Valerie for making us think about ethics and trust in relation to this somehow bogus progress reporting example.

The first thing I would do, as the program manager, is take full responsibility for this situation: it is clear that as I'd have failed to model a responsible behavior by not caring about the test results enough to understand them. By not caring enough about the project to ask enough questions so as to calibrate the trust I can put in the various constituents and stakeholders. I would start by starting to model responsibility.

I would model through spending the time to assess the true/real situation: it may not be that bad. Based on the gap between reality and the improperly reported one, if necessary, I would adjust my trust level in the various stakeholders, and possibly take some action regarding organisation, improved communication, and ethical behavior.

Now, we have to find a good balance between caring and micromanaging! Too many questions might end up disengage some if not all team members.

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