Iterative Ethics

This blog is the first of a series of eight blogs I will write extracting ethics lessons from research and stories that are not at the start ethics-related. It is part of a deliberate effort at synthetic organizational thinking at SLAL, tying together cross-sector organizational matters to derive learning directly and indirectly relevant to ethics. The messages are gleaned from business, non-profit, and governmental organizations, and the ethics applies to all.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article entitled “Leadership Lessons from the Chilean Mining Rescue,” Harvard Business School professors Amy C. Edmondson and Herman B. Leonard, and doctoral candidate Faaiza Rashid, explore the leadership strategies and lessons from the extraordinary 2010 Chilean mining rescue. Their insightful analysis of the 69-day ordeal, involving 33 men trapped when more than 700,000 tons of rock caved in, offers many important leadership lessons. I cite their work to extend one of these lessons to ethics: the importance of iterative leadership as a model and message of the importance of iterative organizational ethics.First, the authors highlight a trio of “envisioning the future, enrolling change agents, and last engaging in the work of change” as critical to the dual challenge of locating and then rescuing the miners. However, they note that this typically linear process doesn’t always succeed in today’s dynamic and highly uncertain environment. There needed to be much learning from mistakes, with rapid real-time correction. They analogize to film studio Pixar’s evolving storyboards. First in class organizational ethics requires similarly “revisionist” approaches, including constant integration of new information, assessing evolving ethics needs, evaluating results of ethics efforts, adapting to resolve ethics failure, and hopefully proactively replicating positive ethics results along the way. Ethics cannot be solved with a step by step process like hiring a new compliance director or chief ethics officer, implementing a new code of ethics, and communicating the new policy.

The early stages of the Chilean rescue involved multiple parallel drilling sites implemented to test and boost speed and chances of success in reaching miners. Ethics also requires parallel test efforts and multiple overlapping actions. Very often this emerges within organizations as layers of policies, procedures, training, and departmental reorganization (e.g. Wal-mart’s recent combination of compliance, ethics, investigations, and legal divisions). Parallel does not, however, mean conflated. It means diligently maintaining ethics as a layer above all other oversight matters and ensuring that multiple different efforts involving different people and approaches occur at the same time – just as the mining leadership used three drilling Plans A, B, and C. (See “Untangling the Confusion over Organizational Ethics” on this web site and on the SSIR Review website).

Why is iterative ethics so critical to ethics success? First, the people involved in any ethics situation within an organization change. The internal and external circumstances also change, whether a financial crisis creating new pressure, a new competitor, a change in compensation policy, or change in board composition. To complicate matters further, even the same people in the same circumstances might act differently at different times – sometimes for reasons as simple as fatigue. Third, ethics decisions and actions may work in some situations and not in others. Zero tolerance for bribery may be not be appropriate if human life is at stake, and one-off bribery is the only way to import critical medical supplies. It is important to understand why a particular approach did not work and not summarily dismiss it for the future if the reason for failure was incident-specific. Similarly, it is important to try to replicate or spread positive ethics results but again periodically retest their validity. Ethics techniques also work best in combination, and these combinations evolve over time. The British banks involved in the Libor rate-rigging scandal initially faced a compliance-heavy undertaking… followed up with more of an organizational culture approach such as Barclays’ principles designed to reach all stakeholders and establish an ethical culture (Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence, and Stewardship). As others have pointed out, these need iterative implementation and oversight to prove meaningful.

It’s not easy to become an iteratively ethical organization. The starting point is communicating that ethics in your organization is dynamic. Just like products, non-profit missions, or governmental programs, ethics today must be designed to address today’s uncertainty and ambiguity – and even crises like the mining rescue – and adjust and innovate along the way.

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