As organisations struggle with the increasing complexity of change, they are at increased risk of moral missteps. The challenge of ensuring products are ethically designed can come second to being disruptive, innovative and cutting-edge. Many large organisations take their cue from Facebook, Google and Uber who are not covering themselves in glory in this area. How can transformation teams ensure that the future org will be an ethical one?

When considering how ethics play out in building the future organisation, we need to think on three levels – the whole organisation, the team and the individual. Most companies have codes of conduct that are signed by new recruits and subsequently forgotten about. What happens when they meet real-life and day-to-day work inside the organisation? All too often they fail – slowly and through a series of small seemingly inconsequential actions. 

For example, we saw (with the benefit of hindsight) ethical failure at every level of Volkswagen produce one of the largest scandals of the 21st century. Individuals felt enabled to act unethically because of silent endorsement from leaders (through tangible behaviours and inaction). Inertia and a lack of transparency between teams meant no challenge was raised. Only by considering the organisation as a system and designing our structures, cultures and practices to embed ethics by design can we tackle this problem.

Here are some of the most important steps that leaders and employees can take to ensure that grass-roots ethics and organisation-wide actions meet in the middle:

  • Create psychological safety: if employees are safe to speak out, they will feel safe to stand by their principles. This is essential for creating an environment where questions can be asked about long term impact without the fear of long term consequences for careers.
  • Explore long-term impacts in a dedicated sprint: building in an ethics sprint (or at least an ethical element to user stories) can help teams new to the concept of voice these concerns focus on long-term, unforeseen impacts.
  • Gather signals from customers in real time: in the event of a breakdown inside the organisation, customers also act as an early-warning sensor network to issues and potential resolutions.
  • Multi-disciplinary, diverse agile teams: different mental models and ways of working help combat groupthink and echo chambers around developing products and services.
  • Transparent by default: challenging the need for closed communications, collaboration and co-operation communities is an excellent step towards ambient awareness across silos.

In today’s fast-moving markets, individuals are acting as the ultimate backstop in matters of ethics. Employees driven to the edge of tolerance by reluctantly taking on the role of whistle-blower. They do this knowing they will suffer for what they believe is right. They become despised and shunned inside the org, ultimately risking their livelihoods. Bringing the network effect to organisational ethics by creating connected, multi-disciplinary teams, willing to engage in open and honest conversations is an excellent way to begin a journey towards a future firm which is ethical by design.

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