Better Ethics for Product Managers


Earlier in my career I spent a lot of time learning from great Product Managers. Some of this was facilitated through observation. A lot of it came from watching and reading. 

One of the really important things I learned was that Product Managers are in the business of making decisions. No surprises here. But I also learned that PMs disproportionally say “no”. What I mean by this is that they are largely responsible for effective prioritisation. There’s never a shortage of ideas. There’s always lots of opportunity cost. You, as a PM, have to be focused and selective. You end up saying “no” or “not right now” most of the time.

I now apply a similar heuristic in life: “If it’s not a [email protected]#! yes, it’s a no.”

One of the things I didn’t learn from my observations, reading or watching was that PMs make ethical tradeoffs constantly. My younger self recognised this. At the time I didn’t ‘get’ how big of an issue or opportunity this was. 

Looking back (with the beautiful benefit of hindsight), I realise just how significant these decisions can be. And to this day I remain concerned that PMs aren’t better equipped with the support, processes and tools to make ethical decisions easier and more consistent to make.

This article is written for the Product Management community. It’s purpose is pretty simple: Help PMs around the world make more socially preferable (ethical) decisions.

Let’s dive in.

Organisations really suck at doing what they say they will

“There is no correlation between the cultural values a company emphasizes in its published statements and how well the company lives up to those values in the eyes of employees.”

Donald Sull - MIT Sloan School of Management and cofounder of CultureX
Let’s provide a few distinct examples:
  1. ANZ Bank (one of Australia’s Big 4) often talks about environmental sustainability. But, they’re also the ‘friendliest funder’ of the fossil fuels industry
  2. Microsoft is pushing hard on things like Self Sovereign Identity and Personal Data Agency. But they also sell surveillance technologies and have a variety of business functions that could easily be considered ‘surveillance capitalism’
  3. The Heart Foundation is trying to promote a heart healthy lifestyle. This is awesome. Heart disease kills more people than any other lifestyle disease today. But, rather problematically, they still have processed red meats in some of their recipes  

This short list came directly from my last article. There’s more context and nuance in that post.

I’m re-using it because it matters. Organisations (read: people within organisations, because ‘organisations’ are really just legal fictions) make ethical tradeoffs constantly. As far as we can tell from the literature today, these tradeoffs poorly reflect the organisations purpose, values and principles. This has led to an ethics failure. This ethics failure has resulted in widespread distrust.

Putting it simply, the ethical intent to action gap needs to be closed.

I’d like to propose that, although PMs are far from solely responsible, they are highly influential. The Product Management community has an opportunity to start #MakingBetterTogether. The tiny ethical decisions and actions individual PMs prioritise and commit to – when combined with the tiny ethical decisions and actions of their peers – can have a profound impact.

Let’s talk about how. 

Ethics has got to be everyone's job. But it needs to be easier to do

Right now, the ethical intent to action gap is largely the result of ability. It’s not a motivation thing.

Let me explain.

Many of the PMs reading this will be familiar with things like the Fogg Behavior Model (U.S. spelling peeps). 

The problem with a lot of ‘change models’ (not this one) is that they kinda rely on motivation. Motivation fluctuates. It’s an unreliable change ally.

The research BJ Fogg and many others have conducted seems to suggest that enhancing ability is a better way to make change happen.

In simple terms – when ‘designing’ behaviour – focus on making the target behaviour super easy to do. And, don’t go big (because you’ll likely go home). Start small. Gain momentum. Let compounding do it’s thing.

Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg’s book, is a brilliant resource to learn the how.

All this is grossly oversimplified, but stick with me. We are making progress.

Ethics has to be embedded. It cannot be an 'add on'

We’ve run large scale programs to help organisations all around the world ‘operationalise ethics’. Although there’s a lot to this, one of the things that is absolutely crucial is that ethical decision making and ethical action is embedded into the way people currently work.

This means:

  1. Incentives
  2. Processes
  3. Workflows
  4. Tools, and
  5. Outputs (your products, services and business model)

Without this, you’ll end up with little more than a nice blog from the CEO talking about principles…

But, coming back to the focus on PMs, where do you start?

A formal, but simple way forward

You can learn a lot more about the ins and outs of this on our platform. But for now, let you give you something very specific that you can act upon immediately.

Change the way you make prioritisation decisions.

Here’s how:

  1. Formally document additional decision making criteria (more on how we do this below)
  2. Embed these into your formal workflows, processes and tools
    Actively engage a broader group of stakeholders in the decision making process. Oatly really screwed up on this recently. Learn from them
  3. Here’s a little more info on point 1… I’ve pulled this directly from the ‘How we make decisions’ section of our public Key Decision Log.

When actually making the decisions we formally document, we use an evolved version of the ICE(EE) scoring method. We’ve added two “E’s” to the existing ICE model. The first stands for “Enthusiasm. The second stands for “Ethics” (in effect, our purpose, values and foundational principle, which is supported by empirical data from Social Preferability Experiments or, if we’re yet to conduct an experiment, a hypothesised social preferability score).

Impact: Hypotheses related to the positive and negative consequences of the action.

Confidence: The likelihood of achieving the impact we propose given the constraints we’re operating under.

Ease: The ability we have – given various constraints – to deliver the output and achieve the impact.

Enthusiasm: The subjective ‘feeling’ we associate with the decision and action we’re proposing.

Ethics: In alignment to The Ethics Centre’s definition, this is about the process we execute to make the best possible choice in a given circumstance.

Here’s basically how it works.

Impact: If we decide to run an experiment for a given proposal (idea), what impact might it have on one of the associated pirate metrics (a series of business metrics we use to improve how we communicate, get people interested in, paying for and getting real value from our propositions)?

[Low impact 1<—–>7 High impact]

Confidence: If we executed this experiment, how confident are we that it will achieve the desired impact?

[Not confident at all 1<—–>7 Very confident]

Ease: How easily can we conduct this experiment (factoring in time, people’s skills and knowledge, budget etc.)?

[Significant effort needed 1<—–>7 Limited effort needed]

Enthusiasm: How motivated are we to do this?

[Not motivated at all 1<—–>7 Super motivated]

Ethics: What level of support might our key stakeholder groups have for both the intent (why we’re doing this) and outcomes (the proposed impact)?

[Socially unacceptable 1<—–>7 Socially preferable]

It’s worth noting here that sometimes you intuit decisions. You feel things. You act on a hunch.

Data augments our decision-making. It doesn’t exclusively control the process.

We’re actually working towards a truly participatory governance model. That’s why we’ve made our Key Decision Log public. It might be important for me to note that, although pre-launch a lot of our decisions had to be made by us (as co-founders), we’re already adding that participatory layer. This means that instead of just making decisions and then openly communicating them, we acting propose a decision before making it. We make decisions with our key stakeholders, not for them.

If you want more, join the #MakingBetterTogether movement

The purpose of our platform is to help close the ethical intent to action gap. I fundamentally believe that without the support of the Product Management community, our vision will never become a reality. No pressure 😜

So, if you want to start diving deeper, connect with Nate and Mat on LinkedIn. Start engaging in the discussions we’re having.

Also, we’ve just kicked off our private beta. We’re less than 6 weeks from ‘public’ launch. If you want to get involved, click here.

Big ❤️ as always.