Ethics: always a sound strategy

Updated: Nov 13 2012, 02:20am hrs
Not all organisations realise it, but solid strategy often comes down to ethics

Dennis Comninos & Chris van der Hoven

Strategic project management is a pitifully misunderstood term, often confused with the project management process. But, in reality, it deserves a lot more attention. Long before you even think of managing a project, you start by managing your strategywhich means choosing the right project in the first place.

In the case of countless ill-advised undertakings throughout the world, efficient project management has not necessarily boiled down to good business practiceit has simply been a more efficient way to lose money.

Although not all organisations realise it, solid strategy often comes down to ethics.

The parallel between ethics and strategy is not new. Consider the example of German industrial giant Bosch, who for a time focused on implementation (project management processes) at the expense of project selection (project portfolio processes). This had a strong impact on the companys well-known ethos of quality and value for money. They could get a product to market faster than any of their competitors, which was fine when the right products were selected. But when poor projects were chosen and raced to market, without consideration for sound quality values or the needs of the consumer, it resulted in a faster turnover of inferior productsand a faster loss of profitability.

So where does strategic and ethical project management come in It is in the strategy underpinning the project itself; often, crucially, the selection of the right projects. And we mean right in both senses. Theres no point in managing a poor strategy well. It starts with thinking, innovation and good old-fashioned common sense. And not just in execution and doing the project, but establishing first off what needs to be done.

When you want to innovate, its about looking at where you want to go, both practically and philosophically, before you start the logistics of how to get there. Innovation has always been a potential minefield ethically, and this is where both morally- and practically-sound strategic project management makes the biggest difference. How different the outcome would have been for some of the US moon projects astronauts if this had been applied. There, the strategy was to beat the Russians rather than to get someone to the moon quickly and effectively. The result Three astronauts in a cockpit without any safety devices, with only one button to fire a rocket. Good strategic risk management would have covered that. But the strategy was aimed in all the wrong directions.

If you are going to do different things or make things happen differently, sustainability is the key. You need public approval. And in securing public approval, there is no substitute for directness, honesty, transparency and integrity.

Ethical strategic project management is therefore most applicable to those wanting to break out of an economic rut, who need to innovate out of their current position without becoming destructive. And, for this reason, it lies in leadership more than management.

Can it be taught Teachers answer a resounding yes. True, there is no substitute for common sense, but there are many underlying principles that can be learnt. And weighing up your decisions ethicallylearning to listen to what people have to say about themis the most important lesson.

Dennis Comninos and Chris van der Hoven offer the Executive Education Strategic Project Management course at the University of Cape Towns Graduate School of Business, South Africa